Obama holds back on taking actions against Syria for alleged use of chemical weapons

Backtracking from his “game changer” threat, President Barack Obama is holding back on taking “actions” against the Syrian government, which has been accused of using chemical weapons against civilians in the country’s brutal two-year civil war.

Last December, Obama warned Syrian President Bashar al Assad that employing chemical weapons would be a “game changer” and threatened that “actions” would be taken if the “red line” is crossed.

In recent letter to Sen. John McCain, the White House confirmed that the intelligence community has assessed “with varying degrees of confidence the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin.”

“I think it’s pretty obvious that red line has been crossed,” said McCain, who urged Obama to supply lethal weapons to help the rebels topple Assad’s regime and end the civil war that has killed tens of thousands of civilians and forced more than 1.2 million Syrians to seek refuge in neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey.

At a press conference on Tuesday, the President struck a more cautious tone, saying that the U.S. needs to clearly establish who really used the chemical weapons before taking actions, hinting at his desire to avoid a repeat of the Bush administration’s WMD debacle in Iraq.

“What we now have is evidence that chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria, but we don’t know how they were used, when they were used, who used them. We don’t have a chain of custody that establishes what exactly happened,” said Obama. “And if we end up rushing to judgment without hard, effective evidence, then we can find ourselves in a position where we can’t mobilize the international community to support what we do. There may be objections even among some people in the region who are sympathetic with the opposition if we take action. So it’s important for us to do this in a prudent way.”

While Obama has called on the United Nations to investigate the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria, he remains vague on what “actions” the U.S. would take if the UN inspections conclude that Assad’s forces did use chemical weapons.

So far, the U.S. assistance to the Syrian opposition has been in the forms of humanitarian aid, non-lethal equipments to the opposition forces, and sanctions against the Syrian government. The administration and Democrats have expressed reservations about deploying U.S. forces to intervene in Syria and be roped into another armed conflict.

“By game-changer I mean that we would have to rethink the range of options that are available to us,” Obama said. “I won’t go into the details of what those options might be, but clearly that would be an escalation, in our view, of the threat to the security of the international community, our allies, and the United States, and that means that there are some options that we might not otherwise exercise that we would strongly consider.”

McCain and his Senate colleague, Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), criticized the President’s ambiguous response. They argued that Obama’s actions has “blurred” the “red line” and warned that it is eroding U.S. credibility in Syria and around the world.

Graham and McCain have called for stronger U.S. intervention in Syria – short of having “boots on the ground”. Some of the measures they’ve proposed include establishing a no-fly zone so the opposition forces can have a “safe area” to operate and providing “weapons to the people in the resistance who we trust.”

The GOP Senators pointed out that Assad’s government has been receiving military assistance from Iran and Russia while the opposition has to fight back with “non-lethal” military equipments

“It’s non-lethal. It’s a half-measure. You win wars by having overwhelming force. The situation on the ground today is stalemate with the Iranians and the Russians all in and the United States of America gives them flack jackets. That is not comforting when Scud missiles are hitting you,” said McCain.

Graham pointed out that this military imbalance has forced the Syrian opposition to accept the help of jihadists in fighting back against Assad’s forces.

“There are up to 6,000 Al Qaeda-type fighters now in Syria. The country is fragmenting along sectarian lines, and chaos is reigning,” said Graham.

Both Graham and McCain said they fear that the radical jihadists aligned with the Syrian opposition will pose a serious threat to the United States after Assad’s ouster, especially if the U.S. fails to intervene and secure Syria’s chemical weapon stocks now.

“We have to have operational capability to secure these chemical weapons stocks. We do not want them to fall into the wrong hands, and the wrong hands are a number of participants in the struggle that’s taking place in Syria,” said McCain. “The situation in Syria is unacceptable. The President of the United States said that this would be a “red line” if they used chemical weapons. The President of the United States has now told us that they used chemical weapons. Those stocks of chemical weapons, some of which are in disputed areas, must be secured and we must give the opposition the capability to drive out Bashar al Assad once and for all.”

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