Obama Says U.S. to ‘Look Before We Leap’ on Syria Policy

President Barack Obama said the U.S. will move carefully on any new action in Syria after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the administration is weighing whether to arm opposition groups as it examines all its options.

“We are continually evaluating the situation on the ground,” Obama said yesterday in Mexico City during a news conference with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. “We want to make sure that we look before we leap and that what we’re doing is actually helpful to the situation.”

The administration has been debating ways to increase pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after disclosing last week that U.S. intelligence agencies found “with varying degrees of confidence” that small amounts of sarin nerve gas were used in Syria. Obama and his national security advisers have resisted calls to arm the opposition in Syria, in part because some of the more effective militant factions have ties to al-Qaeda.

“Arming the rebels -- that’s an option,” Hagel said earlier yesterday at a Pentagon news conference with U.K. Defense Secretary Philip Hammond, where both men emphasized no decision has been made and all options are being reviewed.

“What Secretary Hagel said today is what I’ve been saying now for months,” Obama said several hours later. The president said the administration is “working with our international partners to find the best way to move a political transition that has Assad leaving, stabilizes the country, ends the killing and allows the Syrian people to determine their own destiny.”

‘Rapidly Changing’

More than 70,000 people have been killed since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011, according to United Nations estimates. Most Americans reject the notion that the U.S. has a responsibility to do something about the conflict, with 62 percent opposing intervention, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll taken April 24-28.

Hammond, who conferred with Hagel yesterday about matters including Syria, described the conflict as a “rapidly changing situation” that requires more review.

“We have not thus far provided any arms to the rebels, but we have never said it’s something we will not do,” Hammond told reporters.

Hammond also suggested that obtaining firm evidence of chemical weapons use may be difficult unless there are additional attacks with such weapons.

“After any use of a chemical agent there will be a degradation over time of the evidence that can be collected,” he said. A new attack “would generate new opportunities for us to establish a clear evidence of use,” he said.

Remembering Iraq

Hammond said the U.K. would insist on conclusive evidence that chemical weapons were used before agreeing to military action.

“U.K. public opinion remembers the evidence we were presented with in 2003 around Iraq, which turned out not to be valid,” Hammond said, referring to erroneous U.S. intelligence that Saddam Hussein had stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. “There is a very strong view that we have to have very clear, very high-quality evidence before we make plans and act on that evidence.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also cited yesterday the bad intelligence that President George W. Bush’s administration embraced before the invasion of Iraq. Lavrov did so in arguing against UN action that would be aimed at forcing Assad to let inspectors search for evidence that chemical weapons were used in his country.

‘Blanket Authorization’

“The blanket authorization to have unimpeded access to any site or any person in Syria resembles very much the Security Council resolutions in Iraq, and we all remember the end of that story,” Lavrov told reporters in Budapest.

Obama also has said that last week’s U.S. intelligence assessment on chemical weapons wasn’t sufficient alone to take new action against Syria.

“We don’t know how they were used, when they were used, who used them,” Obama said at a news conference April 30. “If we end up rushing to judgment without hard, effective evidence, then we can find ourselves in a position where we can’t mobilize the international community to support what we do.”

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