With his international credibility seen increasingly on the line, President Obama Thursday faced growing calls at home and abroad for forceful action against the Syrian government over accusations it carried out a massive new deadly chemical weapons attack.
While the White House said it was “appalled” by reports of hundreds of people gassed on Wednesday, it made clear any U.S. response would await confirmation of a chemical attack and again demanded that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad give U.N. inspectors immediate access to the site near Damascus.
The Obama administration’s cautious response underscored a deep reluctance by Washington to intervene in Syria since the country’s civil war erupted two-and-a-half years ago.
But reflecting the pressures Obama could face in coming days, a U.S. official familiar with initial intelligence assessments said the attack appeared to be the deliberate work of the Assad government. It was “the regime acting as a regime,” the official said.
If allegations of a large-scale chemical attack are verified — Syria’s government has denied them — Obama will surely face calls to act more aggressively, possibly even with military force, in retaliation for repeated violations of U.S. “red lines.”
Obama’s failure to confront Assad with the serious consequences he has long threatened would reinforce a global perception of a president preoccupied with domestic matters and unwilling to act decisively in the volatile Middle East, a picture already set by his mixed response to the crisis in Egypt.
The consensus in Washington and allied capitals is that a concerted international response can only succeed if the United States takes the lead.
But Obama has shown no appetite for intervention. Polls by Reuters/Ipsos and others have indicated that Americans are increasingly aware of the conflict in Syria, but continue to show little interest in U.S. military intervention there.
Despite that, pressure was mounting as horrific photos and videos of alleged chemical weapons victims spread across the Internet.
No ‘Conclusive’ Determination by U.S.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the United States had not “conclusively” determined that chemical weapons were employed but that Obama had directed the U.S. intelligence community to urgently gather information to verify the reports from the Syrian opposition.
She said Assad’s use of chemical arms would be an “outrageous and flagrant escalation,” but stopped short of saying what kind of response, if any, was under consideration.
Western diplomats said their efforts for now were focused on persuading the Syrian government to allow the U.N. inspection team, already in Damascus, to the site of the alleged attacks.
“We will all have to be clear that there is a price to pay for not letting the team in,” one diplomat said, without elaborating.
Obama’s decision in June to begin arming Syrian rebels was linked to a U.S. intelligence finding that Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons in several small-scale attacks. But even the limited arms supplies authorized by the president have yet to start flowing.
Unless U.N. inspectors are able to conduct an investigation, it could take some time for U.S. officials to sift through photographs, video and intelligence to determine whether the Syrian opposition’s reports are credible.
An earlier U.S. investigation of alleged Syrian chemical weapons use took months to conclude that Assad’s forces had used small amounts of sarin gas in attacks during the previous year.