WASHINGTON — President Obama on Thursday ruled out unilateral U.S. military action in Syria even if proof emerges that Syrian forces have used lethal chemical weapons.
“This is … an international problem,” Obama said at a White House news conference with visiting Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “It’s not going to be something that the United States does by itself. And I don’t think anybody in the region would think that U.S. unilateral actions … would bring about a better outcome.”
Obama’s warnings since August that Syrian President Bashar Assad would cross a “red line” if his forces used poison gas in the nation’s civil war were widely viewed as a trigger for potential U.S. military intervention.
But in recent weeks, with growing evidence indicating use of sarin nerve gas, Obama has made it clear he wants conclusive proof before ordering a response. He previously indicated that he would prefer a collective response, but Thursday was the first time he categorically ruled out action by the United States alone.
Experts say it may be difficult to prove that chemical weapons were used by Syrian troops and not rebel forces, as Assad’s government has claimed. Even if proof is found, it may be difficult to persuade an international coalition to agree to a military response, analysts say.
Erdogan’s visit was aimed at appealing to Obama to sharply increase pressure on Assad to end the more than 2-year-old conflict, which has sent about 400,000 refugees into Turkey and threatens to destabilize the region.
The Turkish leader has called for the creation of a no-fly zone in northern Syria to shield rebel fighters and civilians. His government wants world powers to support the refugees in a protected zone in Syria rather than in Turkey.
But Obama reaffirmed at the joint news conference that he had little interest in taking military action, including a no-fly zone. As the war has worsened, he has relied on diplomatic initiatives, more than $500 million in humanitarian relief, and nonlethal support for Syrian rebels.
“There’s no magic formula for dealing with an extraordinarily violent and difficult situation like Syria’s,” Obama said. If there were a simple solution, he said, he and Erdogan “would have already acted on it.”
Meanwhile, the Treasury Department announced an array of new sanctions against Assad’s government. It blacklisted four senior officials, a private TV station that allegedly colluded with the Syrian government, and a government-owned airline it accused of transporting weapons from Iran to Syrian forces.
Syrian Arab Airlines carried mortars, small arms, rockets and light antiaircraft guns aboard cargo flights to Syria on behalf of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Quds Force, U.S. officials said. Iran has been a leading ally of Assad’s government.
The TV station, Al Dunya, allegedly provided Syrian intelligence with video interviews of people who had criticized the government. Security forces then used the videos to make arrests. The station later aired interviews with detainees who had been tortured to give false confessions, U.S. officials said.
The four blacklisted Syrian officials are Defense Minister Fahd Jassem Freij, Health Minister Saad Abdel-Salam Nayef, Industry Minister Adnan Abdo Sukhni and Justice Minister Najm Hamad Ahmad.
The United States has sanctioned more than 100 people and entities responsible for “the abhorrent humanitarian situation in Syria,” David S. Cohen, undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the Treasury Department, said in a statement.
Americans are barred from doing business with those on the sanctions list, and any U.S. assets they may hold are frozen.