Obama plays down US intervening in Syria

Saturday - 8/24/2013, 3:24am EDT

BRADLEY KLAPPER
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama on Friday played down the prospect of speedy U.S. intervention in Syria, stressing the difficulty of ordering military action against the Assad government without a strong international coalition and a legal mandate from the United Nations.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Obama has asked the Pentagon to provide military options in light of reports that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against civilians. While Hagel declined to discuss any specific force movements, U.S. defense officials said the Navy moved a fourth warship into the region. Each can launch ballistic missiles.

"The Defense Department has a responsibility to provide the president with options for contingencies, and that requires positioning our forces, positioning our assets, to be able to carry out different options -- whatever options the president might choose," Hagel told reporters traveling with him to Asia.

U.S. Navy ships are capable of a variety of military action, including launching Tomahawk cruise missiles, as they did against Libya in 2011 as part of an international action that led to the overthrow of the Libyan government.

While the Obama administration weighed military responses to this week's claims of a large-scale chemical weapons attack near Damascus, Obama spoke as cautiously as ever about getting involved in a war that has killed more than 100,000 people and now includes Hezbollah and al-Qaida.

The president made no mention of the "red line" of chemical weapons use that he marked out for Syrian President Bashar Assad a year ago and that U.S. intelligence says has been breached at least on a small scale several times since.

"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 -- do we have the coalition to make it work?" Obama said Friday. "Those are considerations that we have to take into account."

The reported attack Wednesday, which killed at least 100 people in a Damascus suburb, would amount to the most heinous use of chemical weapons since Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds in the town of Halabja two-and-half decades ago.

Obama conceded in an interview on CNN's "New Day" program that the episode is a "big event of grave concern" that requires American attention. He said any large-scale chemical weapons usage would affect "core national interests" of the United States and its allies. But nothing he said signaled a shift toward U.S. action.

U.S. defense officials said the additional warship was moved into the eastern Mediterranean Sea. There are no immediate orders for any missile launch into Syria, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss ship movements publicly. But if the U.S. wants to send a message to Assad, the most likely military action would be a Tomahawk missile strike, launched from a ship in the Mediterranean.

For a year now, Obama has threatened to punish Assad's regime if it resorted to its chemical weapons arsenal, among the world's vastest, saying use or even deployment of such weapons of mass destruction constituted a "red line" for him. A U.S. intelligence assessment concluded in June chemical weapons have been used in Syria's civil war, but Washington has taken no military action against Assad's forces.

U.S. officials have instead focused on trying to organize a peace conference between the government and opposition. Obama has authorized weapons deliveries to rebel groups, but none is believed to have been sent so far.

In his first comments on Syria since the alleged chemical attack, Obama said the U.S. is still trying to find out what happened.

U.S. confirmation took more than four months after rebels similarly reported chemical attacks in February, though in this instance a U.N. chemical weapons team is already on the ground in Syria. Assad's government, then as now, has denied the claims as baseless.

Obama also cited the need for the U.S. to be part of a coalition in dealing with Syria. America's ability by itself to solve the Arab country's sectarian fighting is "overstated," he said.

And, in a break from his tough rhetoric of August 2012, Obama suggested the importance of the U.N. authorizing military intervention like in 2011 when a U.S.-led bombing campaign helped oust Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Such a scenario is almost impossible to imagine in Syria's case. Russia has made it clear that it won't sign off on any such mission. Russia has exercised its veto to block all efforts at the U.N. Security Council to condemn or put sanctions on the Assad regime, its closest ally in the Middle East.