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Obama warns of more chemical-weapon attacks if world stays passive

September 04, 2013|By Kathleen Hennessey and Christi Parsons

STOCKHOLM -- President Obama on Wednesday warned of more chemical-weapon attacks if the international community doesn’t respond to the alleged assault in Syria two weeks ago.

In a news conference with the Swedish prime minister, Obama said the world must respond in a way that deters future attacks or risk seeing the threat grow. “In the face of such barbarism,” Obama said, “the international community cannot be silent.”

Failure to respond would “increase the risk of more attacks,” he said.

The president made the remarks while running a two-front advocacy campaign, asking members of Congress to authorize military action in Syria while also urging world leaders to sign on to the idea.

"I believe Congress will approve it," Obama said of his request for authorization, which will be considered Wednesday by House and Senate committees. "I would not have taken this before Congress just as a symbolic gesture."

Obama, who has been criticized for saying that any use of chemical weapons by Syria would cross a red line and “change his calculus,” said that he didn't draw that line.

"I didn’t set a red line," Obama said. "The world set a red line."

He invoked the Holocaust as a example of what is at stake in the Syrian conflict.

“I think Americans also recognize that if the international community fails to maintain certain norms, standards, laws governing how countries interact and how people are treated that over time this world becomes less safe,” he said. “We’ve seen that happen again and again in our history; the people of Europe are certainly familiar with what happens when the international community finds excuses not to act.”

Obama did not answer a question about whether he would strike Syria if he did not win congressional authorization. He said he decided to seek authorization not just an “exercise,” but because he believes the action send a stronger message with congressional backing.

Obama noted that members of Congress have also condemned used of chemical weapons. He said that Congress’ credibility would also be called into question in the future, if it does not respond.

The president, who will travel from Sweden to Russia this week, said he has tried to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to at least support a change in leadership in Syria.

"If you in fact want to end the violence and slaughter inside of Syria, then you're going to have to have a political transition," Obama said he told the Russian leader. So far, he said, Putin has "rejected that logic."

Obama stepped up his international campaign with Wednesday’s visit to Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, who stood by Obama to publicly declare that the use of chemical weapons is a “clear violation of international law” and to warn of the danger of letting it go “unanswered.”

Reinfeldt said he understood the consequences of not responding, but said the issue should be handled by the United Nations and did not endorse Obama's push for a military strike.

The U.S. government and others have accused the government of Syria of conducting a massive sarin attack in the Damascus suburbs Aug. 21, killing more than 1,400 people.

In response to a question from a reporter, Obama warned of a slippery slope if the world does not take action to enforce the international norm against use of chemical weapons. If the world doesn't act, he said, "we are effectively saying that, even though we may condemn and issue resolutions and so forth and so on," a leader like Syrian President Bashar Assad "can continue to act with impunity."

Then, he said, "those international norms begin to erode," and other nations look at the lack of response and conclude, "that's something we can get away with."

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kathleen.hennessey@latimes.com

Twitter: @khennessey

christi.parsons@latimes.com

Twitter: @cparsons

Hennessey reported from Stockholm and Parsons from Washington.

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