WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama signalled yesterday he is no rush to respond quickly to Syria’s apparent use of chemical weapons, taking a cautious approach to the country’s civil war, mirroring the views of the American public, most lawmakers and some US allies.
Obama, who last year declared that the use or deployment of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would cross a “red line,” told a White House news conference there was evidence those weapons were used, but there was still much that US intelligence agencies did not know.
“We don’t know how they were used, when they were used, who used them,” he said, and, “We don’t have a chain of custody that establishes what exactly happened.”
Obama did not rule out action – military or otherwise – against Assad’s government. But he repeatedly stressed he would not allow himself to be pressured prematurely into deeper intervention in Syria’s two-year-long civil war.
The president’s remarks raised the prospect that, despite declaring last week that there was evidence Assad’s forces had used the nerve agent sarin “on a small scale,” any US government response will not be quick.
Obama’s press secretary Jay Carney told reporters on Monday that there was no deadline for rendering a final judgment on whether chemical weapons were used, and by whom. “I would not give you a timetable,” Carney said.
Privately, US officials predict it will be weeks before any conclusion is reached.
Syria denies using chemical weapons.
Obama administration officials have not specified what “physiological” evidence they have that Syrian forces used sarin, but US government sources said it included samples of blood from alleged victims, and of soil.
“My understanding of the situation is that the various intelligence agencies are quite confident that human beings were exposed to sarin, and that’s based on physical samples and chemical analysis of blood from the victims,” said Gary Samore, a former Obama nonproliferation adviser who is now at Harvard University.
Samore said there appeared to be “a question mark” about whether local military commanders used the weapons “or whether this came down from orders from Damascus to test how much they could get away with.”
Since the Syrian conflict erupted in 2011 – it has killed 70,000 people and created more than 1.2 million refugees – Obama has repeatedly shied away from deep US involvement.
That stance is shared by top Pentagon officials, who have spoken publicly and privately of their concerns about the limits and risks of employing US military force in the shattered country.
Whether Obama is now slowly moving toward a more activist approach is unclear.
Obama, without being specific, said that if Syria’s chemical weapons use was more firmly established “that means that there are some options that we might not otherwise exercise that we would strongly consider.”