Obama hints at US military action at Syria as administration readies lethal aid options
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama signaled Tuesday he would consider U.S. military action against Syria if “hard, effective evidence” is found to bolster intelligence that chemical weapons have been used in the 2-year-old civil war. Among the potential options being readied for him: weapons and ammunition for the Syrian rebels.
Despite such planning, Obama appealed for patience during a White House news conference, saying he needed more conclusive evidence about how and when chemical weapons detected by U.S. intelligence agencies were used and who deployed them. If those questions can be answered, Obama said he would consider actions the Pentagon and intelligence community have prepared for him in the event Syria has crossed his chemical weapons “red line.”
“There are options that are available to me that are on the shelf right now that we have not deployed,” he told reporters packed into the White House briefing room.
Beyond lethal aid to the rebels, several government agencies are also drafting plans for establishing a protective “no-fly zone” over Syria and for targeted missile strikes, according to officials familiar with the planning. However, the officials, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the internal deliberations, stressed that Obama had not yet decided to proceed on any of the plans.
As Obama raised the prospect of deeper U.S. involvement, Hezbollah’s leader said Tuesday that his Iranian-backed militant group stood ready to aid Syrian President Bashar Assad. And new violence in Syria hit the capital of Damascus, as a powerful bomb ripped through a bustling commercial district, killing at least 14 people.
Mindful that any military intervention in the combustible Middle East would be complicated and dangerous, Obama hinted the U.S. would probably avoid taking action unilaterally. Part of the rationale for building a stronger chemical weapons case against Assad, Obama said, is to avoid being in a position “where we can’t mobilize the international community to support what we do.”
Obama has resisted calls to expand U.S. assistance beyond the nonlethal aid the government is providing the rebels. That has frustrated some allies as well as some U.S. lawmakers, who say the deaths of 70,000 Syrians should warrant a more robust American response.
Tuesday’s wide-ranging news conference coincided with the 100-day mark of Obama’s second term. It’s a stretch that has been defined by the defeat of gun control legislation he supported, as well as the continuation of old disputes that marked the president’s first four years in office, including the Syria conflict and the launching of his controversial health care overhaul. Asked if he still had “the juice” to get legislation approved, he smiled and paraphrased Mark Twain’s famous line, saying, “Rumors of my demise may be a little exaggerated at this point.”
Another issue that frustrated Obama in his first term resurfaced when he was pressed about the hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay, the detention center he promised to close but hasn’t been able to. Obama said he would make another run at it, though he was vague about how.