Obama cautious on Syria ‘red line’


Sun, Apr 28, 2013 - Page 7

US President Barack Obama is insisting that any use of chemical weapons by Syria would change his “calculus” about US military involvement in the two-year-old civil war — but said too little was known about a pair of likely sarin attacks to order aggressive action now.

The president’s public response on Friday to the latest intelligence reflected the lack of agreement in Washington over whether to use the US’ military to intervene in the civil war — and if so, how. However, lawmakers in both parties expressed concern that inaction could embolden Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and perhaps other countries including North Korea and Iran. US officials declared on Thursday that the Syrian government probably had used chemical weapons twice last month, newly provocative acts in the civil war that has killed more than 70,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more. The US assessment followed similar conclusions from Britain, France, Israel and Qatar — key allies eager for a more aggressive response to Syrian conflict.

Obama, in his first comments about the new intelligence disclosure, said on Friday: “For the Syrian government to utilize chemical weapons on its people crosses a line that will change my calculus and how the United States approaches these issues.”

He has issued similar warnings for months, saying the use of chemical weapons or transfer of the stockpiles to terrorists would cross a “red line” and carry “enormous consequences.”

Seeking to show resolve, Obama added on Friday that “I’ve meant what I said.”

The president is facing political pressure from a familiar contingent of senators, led by Republican US Senator John McCain, favoring a quick and strong US response. However, even those lawmakers appear opposed to a US military invasion and are instead supporting creation of a protective “no-fly zone” or another narrow, safe zone inside Syria, along its border with Turkey.

Some lawmakers voiced concern that if Obama does not make good on his promise to respond aggressively if it is shown that al-Assad used chemical weapons, his inaction could send a damaging message to the world.

White House officials insisted Obama’s caution was not an indication that the line was shifting. Officials said firm evidence of a chemical weapons attack would trigger a US response — unspecified — and would not be contingent on the size and scope of the use.

Obama met at the White House with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, whose nation is suffering amid an influx of refugees spilling over its border with Syria. The president promised to vigorously pursue more information about chemical weapons attacks, including exactly who might be responsible and how they might have been carried out.