WASHINGTON -- President Obama softened his threat to Syria over its possible use of chemical weapons, telling reporters that if conclusive proof of such activity emerges, he “would rethink a range” of retaliatory options that might not include military action.
Obama, who has called Syria’s use of chemical weapons in its civil war a “red line,” also made clear at a White House news conference Tuesday that the burden of a response is not the United States’ alone, but one that is shared by all nations.
“What’s happening in Syria is a blemish on the international community generally,” he said. Confirmed use of poison gas by Syrian forces would be “a game changer not simply for the United States, but for the international community.”
Obama was asked directly if that meant his administration would take military action.
“By 'game changer,' I mean that we would have to rethink the range of options that are available to us,” he said. If the White House obtains conclusive proof of poison gas use, “that means that there’s some options that we might not otherwise exercise that we would ... strongly consider.”
Obama first warned Syrian President Bashar Assad last August that use of lethal chemical weapons, or transfer of such stockpiles to terrorist groups, would cross a “red line.” He left ambiguous what kind of response he might take, although it seemed to imply U.S. military action.
But since the White House last week announced that U.S. intelligence agencies had concluded with varying degrees of confidence that sarin, a nerve agent, had been released in Syria, Obama has made it gradually clearer that he is far from embracing a military option that might pull the United States into another war.
Obama emphasized Tuesday that while evidence indicates some use of chemical agents occurred, investigators have yet to determine if regime forces intentionally used poison gas, if it was accidentally released or if insurgents or other groups fired the weapons.
He said conclusive proof was necessary to win international support for action.
“If we end up rushing to judgment without hard, effective evidence, then we may find ourselves in the position where we can’t mobilize the international community to support what we do,” he said. “There may be objections even among some people in the region who are sympathetic with the opposition if we take action. So ... it’s important to do this in a prudent way.”
Some members of Congress and other advocates have urged the administration to begin arming the Syrian rebels, to create no-fly zones to create protected corridors for refugees, or to use U.S. military force to destroy or seize Syria’s huge chemical infrastructure.
But White House and senior Pentagon officials fear that U.S. weapons shipments could end up in the hands of Islamic militants, who are playing a growing role in the revolt, or could increase the suffering in Syria without pushing Assad out of office. Officials say more than 70,000 people have died since the conflict began in 2011.
Conservative lawmakers and their allies say Obama has raised the bar so high that it is unlikely he will take action. They argue that Iran and North Korea will view his response as a signal that U.S. threats can be ignored.
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