Obama: proof of Syrian chemical weapons would be ‘game-changer’


President says US allies ‘could not permit the use of chemical weapons’ but stops short of saying red line had been crossed

Dan Roberts in Washington and Julian Borger in London

Barack Obama with King Abdullah of Jordan
Barack Obama with King Abdullah of Jordan. Obama’s cautious comments reflect Washington’s lack of consensus on how best to deal with Syria. Photo: Getty Images

President Barack Obama warned the Syrian regime on Friday that proof it had used chemical weapons on its civilian population would be a “game-changer”, but cautioned that more evidence was required.

Speaking at the White House, Obama said that confirmation Bashar al-Assad had deployed chemical agents in the protracted Syrian civil war would alter his administration’s “calculus”, but stopped short of declaring that a “red line” had been crossed.
Obama’s cautious comments reflected the lack of a consensus in Washington over how to respond to claims that Syria has used sarin gas in recent incidents. US congressmen briefed by secretary of state John Kerry on Friday said the most likely option would involve joining other countries in arming specific rebel groups.

Sitting alongside King Abdullah of Jordan at the White House, Obama said that the international community “could not stand by and permit the systematic use of weapons like chemical weapons on civilian populations”.

But he left open the possibility that their use in Syria would not be proved: “I think that, in many ways, a line has been crossed when we see tens of thousands of innocent people being killed by a regime.

“But the use of chemical weapons and the dangers that poses to the international community, to neighbors of Syria, the potential for chemical weapons to get into the hands of terrorists – all of those things add increased urgency to what is already a significant security problem and humanitarian problem in the region.”

On Thursday, the White House said that US intelligence had concluded with “varying degrees of confidence” that the Syrian government has twice used chemical weapons. British officials say there is evidence of sarin use in at least three incidents in Khan al-Assal near Aleppo, in Homs and near Damascus.

In London, the British prime minister David Cameron described the evidence of chemical weapons use as “limited but growing”, and played down any suggestion British troops could be deployed in Syria as a consequence, saying only that it represented a red line for the international community “to do more”.

Speaking to the BBC, Cameron echoed the White House’s caution over the evidence so far, saying the UK government would not make the mistake of “rushing into print” and would work to verify the evidence with its allies.

“It is very disturbing what we are seeing. It’s limited evidence but there’s growing evidence that we have seen too of the use of chemical weapons, probably by the regime,” Cameron said. “It is extremely serious – this is a war crime – and we should take it very seriously.”

He also stopped well short of suggesting that confirmation of chemical weapons use would necessarily trigger military action. “I think what President Obama said was absolutely right – that this should form for the international community a red line for us to do more.”

There has been speculation that western special forces could be sent in to secure chemical weapons stockpiles in Syria, but Cameron said he could not envisage British troops on the ground. “I don’t want to see that and I don’t think that is likely to happen, but I think we can step up the pressure on the regime, work with our partners, work with the opposition in order to bring about the right outcome,” he said.

Asked if he was concerned the invasion of Iraq in 2003 – which toppled Saddam Hussein – was having an impact on the way in which western leaders were dealing with the conflict in Syria, Cameron told the BBC: “I do worry about that.”

He added: “Let me be absolutely clear. I think the Iraq lesson must be about how we marshal and use information and intelligence and I think that lesson has been learned but I think it is very important for politicians and leaders of this generation to look at what is happening in Syria and ask ourselves what more we can do.”

In the Khan al-Assal incident on 19 March, the Syrian government and the rebels claimed that chemical agents had been used against them. British officials say that Syrian army troops appear to have been affected in that incident but suggest it was either case of “friendly fire”, a projectile going astray, or a deliberate attempt to implicate the rebels.

Chemical weapons experts have mostly reacted with caution over the claims. Referring to video footage purported to show victims foaming at the mouth, Richard Guthrie, a British chemical weapons expert and former head of the Chemical and Biological Warfare Project of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), said: “That would not be indicative of use of nerve agents, but is more likely to be a sign of a choking agent such as phosgene being used, if anything were used.”

Jean-Pascal Zanders, another expert at the EU Institute for Strategic Studies said: “It’s not possible that what is being shown to the public is a chemical weapons attack. The video from Aleppo showing foaming at the mouth does not look like a nerve agent. I’m wholly unconvinced.” Some press reports of the sarin attack on the Tokyo metro system in March 1995 do refer to some victims foaming at the mouth.

Experts also said that evidence in the form of physical samples, of soil or human tissue, would be of little use without a clear “chain of custody” between the site of an alleged attack at the laboratory where it was analysed. According to a report by McClatchy in the US, the soil sample examined by American experts is “minuscule” and contains a byproduct of sarin that could also be a byproduct of fertiliser production.

The UN has launched an investigation in cooperation with the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the world’s experts on the subject. However, because of disagreements with the Syrian government, some of the investigators are still in Cyprus waiting for a green light, and some have returned to their home countries.

In Washington, Kerry briefly took questions from politicians in the House of Representatives, but there has been a marked stepping down of rhetoric on Capitol Hill even among more hawkish members.

“There was about as much appetite in the room for getting involved as I have when I leave an all-you-can-eat restaurant,” said Brad Sherman of California, who has previously sponsored a bill calling on Obama to arm rebels with anti-aircraft weapons.

Other Congressmen who spoke to reporters after said they had more confidence now that the evidence pointing to chemical weapons use was strong, but not conclusive. “There is enough evidence to pass muster in a civil court but I can’t say it has been proved beyond all reasonable doubt,” added Sherman.

Additional reporting by Associated Press in Damascus

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