WASHINGTON — President Obama is seeking time before deciding whether Syria’s suspected use of chemical weapons will force the United States off the sidelines of a two-year conflict that he has never seen as a central national-security threat.
“What we have right now is an intelligence assessment,” Obama said Friday, in his first comments on Syria since his administration acknowledged Thursday that Syria’s government probably used chemical agents “on a small scale.” But he emphasized it is too soon to say whether the “red line” of chemical-weapons use was crossed.
“Knowing that, potentially, chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria doesn’t tell us when they were used, how they were used,” or provide “confirmation and strong evidence,” Obama said before a White House meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, who is urging a more forceful U.S. response to the civil war on his border.
“This is going to be a long-term proposition. This is not going to be something that is solved easily overnight,” Obama said.
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For months, the administration has warned Syrian President Bashar Assad not to use chemical weapons in his struggle against opposition fighters. Obama has talked tough about what could trigger a U.S. response with “enormous consequences,” but he has never spelled out what those consequences might be.
White House press secretary Jay Carney repeated Friday that Obama “retains all options to respond” if information proves the suspected use of the nerve agent sarin.
The clear proof Obama is seeking is likely to be weeks or months away, if it comes at all. A U.N. weapons team has been blocked from on-the-ground testing, and it is not clear what other information the administration would find persuasive.
Last month, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed a 15-person team to inspect sites in Syria where chemical weapons might have been used. But Assad refuses to grant access to all of the locations, and U.N. diplomats see no end in sight to the stalemate.
Efforts to take a tougher line on Syria by the United States and its allies at the United Nations have been blocked by Russia, which remains an Assad ally.
The United States is under pressure to do more from several Arab states, along with Turkey, Israel and prominent European allies. There is no consensus about what those nations want from Obama, but there is little pressure from the American public for military involvement.
The White House followed allies Britain, France and Israel in concluding that chemical weapons were probably used by the Syrian regime over the past four months, but it added the caveat that the assessment was reached “with varying degrees of confidence.”