Obama Troubled by Syrian Report, But Still Cautious

Obama Troubled by Syrian Report, But Still Cautious

By Alexis Simendinger - August 23, 2013

President Obama said available information about an alleged mass chemical attack in Syria -- which may have killed more than 1,000 people -- moves beyond civil war and into “core” U.S. national interests in the use or transport of weapons of mass destruction.

During a CNN interview broadcast Friday, the president said the deaths, including of children, reported in graphic detail this week are of “grave concern” and “very troublesome.”

“I think it is fair to say that as difficult as the problem is, this is something that is going to require America’s attention and hopefully the entire international community’s attention,” he said.

The White House reacted with caution this week to what some authorities suggest could be the deadliest use of chemical weapons in a quarter-century, urging Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to permit a team of U.N. investigators already in Damascus to gather independent evidence at the site of the chemical attack, which is east of the capital city. Initially, the president’s spokesman said the administration wanted to wait for independent corroboration.

Obama reiterated the request to allow U.N. inspectors to operate in what is now a battlefield, but he said for the first time publicly since the attack that he doubted the international community would gain cooperation from Assad. He indicated the United States is in consultation with allies to weigh all options, short of putting U.S. soldiers on the ground.

Military options could include the use of cruise missiles, sustained long-range bombing into Syria, or additional U.S. military and weapons assistance aimed at strengthening the anti-Assad forces. None of the options is without risk or downsides, particularly because the administration believes anti-Assad rebels -- a mélange of thugs, terrorists and fighters hostile to the United States -- are situational allies, at best.

In June, as violence escalated and Assad showed signs of renewed strength, the administration pledged U.S. “military support” to the rebels. At the time, the help was widely assumed to be weapons, although the White House refused to specify the kind of support it had committed. Since then, rebel leaders in Syria have complained that they received no shipments of U.S. weaponry.

The administration also deployed hundreds of military planners and trainers, intelligence personnel and communications and technological experts, all based in Texas, to the region to set up operations across the border in Jordan. The Pentagon initially said the personnel would help Jordan’s military, should they need to defend their border.

The French newspaper Le Figaro reported this week that CIA, Jordanian and Israeli specialists trained anti-Assad fighters in Jordan before the rebel forces crossed into Syria twice in mid-August. The Jerusalem Post and other media cited the detailed but unconfirmed report. Le Figaro cited the rebel assault into Syria as a possible catalyst for the chemical attack near Damascus.

The White House did not respond Friday to a request from RCP for comment.

“There is no doubt that when you start seeing chemical weapons used on a large scale -- and again, we’re still gathering information about this particular event, but it is troublesome -- then that starts getting to some core national interests that the United States has, both in terms of making sure that weapons of mass destruction are not proliferating, as well as needing to protect our allies, our bases in the region,” Obama said.

A year ago, the president warned that evidence of Syria’s use of or even movement of its chemical weapons stockpile would be a “red line” for the United States. Since then, the administration has confirmed that chemical attacks have killed Syrians, and it has blamed the Assad regime rather than warring rebels for the deaths. But after inventing the red line, Obama has been hesitant to respond to its appearance, and he sounded similarly careful Friday.

“Sometimes what we’ve seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations, can result in us being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region,” he told CNN.

White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest, traveling with the president in New York Friday, said it was “evident from the videotape and the photos that are pouring out from the region that we’re talking about a mass casualty incident. … It does have significant implications for our national security.”

The president’s spokesman declined to say if Obama expected to meet with his national security team Friday when he returns to the White House, or possibly on Saturday.

The New York Times reported that administration advisers, meeting for 3½ hours at the White House on Thursday, remained divided about the best way to respond to events in Syria.

Obama said he envisioned a shortened time frame for U.S. decision-making following the apparent chemical attack, but expressed continued caution that Americans show little tolerance for new commitments of U.S. military force and treasure around the world. And he noted that securing international support to attack the Assad regime or to back rebel fighters in the name of international security is difficult.

“If the U.S. goes in and attacks another country without a U.N. mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it,” the president said. “But keep in mind -- because I know the American people keep this in mind -- we’ve still got a war going on in Afghanistan,” he continued. “I’m reminded that there are costs and we have to take those into account as we try to work within an international framework to do everything we can to see Assad ousted.”

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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