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Pressure mounts on Obama administration to act in Syria after attack

August 21, 2013|By Shashank Bengali and Kathleen Hennessey
  • White House spokesman Josh Earnest addresses journalists at a daily briefing, during which he avoided discussion of whether the Obama administration's "red line" had been crossed in Syria.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest addresses journalists at a daily briefing,… (T.J. Kirkpatrick / Getty…)

WASHINGTON -- Some members of Congress renewed calls Wednesday for the Obama administration to intervene more decisively in the Syrian war after allegations of a deadly chemical weapons attack, even as Pentagon officials continued to caution against direct U.S. involvement.

Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), co-chairman of a caucus on weapons of mass destruction, said in a statement that the administration’s "red line" against the use of chemical weapons appeared to have been crossed.

"I continue to believe that the U.S. should consider assertive ways to end the atrocities committed against the Syrian people,” Casey said.

But Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, this week offered a pessimistic assessment of U.S. military options. He argued that though U.S. forces could easily defeat Syrian President Bashar Assad's air defenses and tilt the conflict in favor of the rebels, the United States should avoid even limited military engagement because the rebels -- including some fighters loyal to Al Qaeda -- don’t back U.S. interests.

"Syria today is not about choosing between two sides, but rather about choosing one among many sides," Dempsey wrote in a letter to Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) that was released Wednesday. "It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not."

For the White House, the claims of chemical weapons use outside the Syrian capital, Damascus, and photos posted online of rows of bodies, were another sobering reminder of the limited impact the Obama administration’s policy appears to have had on the bloody conflict.

The alleged attack comes a year and a day after the president first declared that the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” that would trigger a response from the U.S.

In June, the White House said it would provide “military assistance” to the rebels because it had concluded that the Syrian government had used lethal chemical weapons, charges denied by the Syrian authorities. But more than two months later, Syrian opposition leaders say they have yet to receive any U.S. weapons or ammunition, and haven’t even been told what to expect or when to expect it.

U.S. agencies have so far provided only nonlethal aid to the rebels, such as mobile radios, in addition to $1 billion in humanitarian assistance. But the slow roll-out of military help is seen as another sign of the administration’s reluctance to become more deeply involved.

White House Spokesman Josh Earnest on Wednesday avoided discussion of whether the alleged chemical attack outside the Syrian capital, Damascus, in which opposition activists accuse the government of killing hundreds of civilians -- constituted a crossing of the administration's red line.

Defending administration policy, he cited condemnation from other world leaders and the effect  of economic sanctions as evidence that Assad's government was feeling pressure. Still, he acknowledged that  the U.S. action "has not resulted in the outcome that we would like to see, which is Assad being completely removed from power."

The White House pointed to the United Nations as the likely venue for any additional steps, noting that the U.N. Security Council was in consultations on the matter Wednesday afternoon. The council, however, has been divided over Syria, with Russia openly supporting Assad's government and resisting moves that might take sides in the conflict.

Administration officials tried to pressure Russia to support a United Nations investigation of the alleged attack Wednesday.

“Even some people who may disagree with us on some aspects of our policy related to Syria should be able to agree that the use of chemical weapons is completely unacceptable,” Earnest said.

The allegations of chemical weapons use remain uncorroborated, and Syrian authorities have labeled the charge a fabrication.


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Twitter: @SBengali

Twitter: @khennessey

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