President Obama said Friday that the potential use of chemical weapons by the ruling regime of Syria against its people “adds increased urgency” to international concern about the regime.
Speaking to reporters during an Oval Office meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan, Obama noted that reports of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government were preliminary. That information, he said, “does not tell us when they were used, how they were used.”
Still, the president said: “Obviously, horrific as it is when mortars are being fired on civilians and people are being indiscriminately killed, to use potential weapons of mass destruction on civilian populations crosses another line with respect to international norms and international law. And that is going to be a game-changer.”
On Tuesday, the Israeli military published intelligence findings that President Bashar Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons repeatedly in recent months. Part of Israel’s concern, and Obama’s, is that those weapons could fall into terrorist hands.
Two days later, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that the U.S. believes “with some degree of varying confidence” that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons, specifically the nerve agent sarin, against its people.
A letter from the White House to Congress said the assessment was based on “physiological samples” but called for a United Nations probe to corroborate it and nail down when and how they were used.
The American response is shadowed by the legacy of flawed intelligence reports of weapons of mass destruction that led to the invasion of Iraq.
The president spoke after the deputy foreign minister of Israel said world powers may now conclude there was “no avoiding” action to take control of the Assad regime’s chemical stockpile.
British Prime Minister David Cameron also said there was limited but growing evidence that the Syrian regime had used chemical agents.
Echoing the administration’s caution, Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Friday that “every option is on the table” but stressed that “we want to do everything we can to avoid putting boots on the ground.”
Sen. John McCain, R.-Ariz., said on Thursday that the Obama administration should consider a military approach but not commit American troops. He suggested providing weapons to trusted parts of the Syrian resistance.
The uprising against Assad began in March 2011, and an estimated 70,000 people have been killed in the violence that has followed.