US President Barack Obama said in an interview broadcast yesterday that new allegations of chemical weapons use by Syrian forces were of “grave concern.”
However, he cautioned against the US intervening hastily and getting “mired in very difficult situations” with actions that could “breed more resentment” in the region.
In an interview with CNN he said opposition allegations that hundreds of people had been killed in a gas attack near Damascus on Wednesday were more serious than previous charges against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
“We are right now gathering information about this particular event, but I can say that unlike some of the evidence we were trying to get earlier that led to a UN investigator going into Syria, what we’ve seen indicates clearly this is a big event, of grave concern,” he said.
Obama stopped short of saying point blank that the US believes such weapons were used — an act that in theory would cross what he has called a “red line.”
He reiterated that the US is seeking to gather more evidence on whether chemical weapons were in fact used this week.
The president has been loath to order US military action to protect civilians in Syria, fearing being drawn into a vicious civil war, just soon after he extracted US troops from Iraq.
However, revulsion over video footage and photos of dead children blanketing the US media has reopened the debate about a policy Obama allies see as prudent but critics brand as weak.
Republican US Senator John McCain warned on Thursday that Obama had given al-Assad a “green light” to commit atrocities by failing to use military force to respond to previous chemical attacks.
“When the president of the United States says that if he uses these weapons that it would be a, quote, ‘red line and a game-changer,’ [al-Assad] now sees that as a green light,” he told CNN.
Obama answered McCaine in the new CNN interview, saying he understood the lawmaker’s worry, but that the US had to proceed with caution.
“I am sympathetic to Senator McCain’s passion for helping people work through what is an extraordinarily difficult and heart-breaking situation,” he said.
However, Obama said US citizens expect him to protect their long-term interests.
“Sometimes what we’ve seen is folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations, can result in us being drawn in to very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region,” he said.