Obama: Syria chemical attack would cross U.S. 'core national interests'

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President Obama said Friday the United States was consulting with allies and considering how to respond if an investigation determines that Syria used chemical weapons in an alleged attack on rebel-held villages in the eastern Damascus suburbs of Ghouta this week.

“Although the situation in Syria is very difficult…there is no doubt that when you start seeing chemical weapons used on a large scale… then that starts getting to some core national interests that the United States has, both in terms of us making sure that weapons of mass destruction are not proliferating, as well as needing to protect our allies, our bases in the region,” Obama told CNN’s Chris Cuomo in an interview aired Friday.

“We are right now gathering information about this particular event,” Obama continued, “but I can say that, unlike some of the evidence that we were trying to get earlier that led to a U.N. investigator going into Syria, what we've seen indicates that this is clearly a big event of grave concern.”

While the U.S., Europeans and Russia have called on the Syrian government to allow UN inspectors access to the site, “we don’t expect cooperation, given their past history,” Obama said.

But Obama also expressed caution about another military entanglement, and justified the more limited U.S. response to past events in the Syrian conflict that has killed over 100,000 people.

“That does not mean that we have to get involved with everything immediately,” he told CNN. “We have to think through strategically what's going to be in our long-term national interests, even as we work cooperatively internationally to do everything we can to put pressure on those who would kill innocent civilians.”

His comments came a day after US military, intelligence and diplomatic officials met for over three hours at the White House Thursday “to deliberate over options, which officials say could range from a cruise missile strike to a more sustained air campaign against Syria,” the New York Times reported. But the meeting concluded with no decision, the paper said, amid continued divisions in Obama's national security team about the consequences of deepening U.S. intervention in Syria.

The U.S. military “can destroy the Syrian Air Force,” top US military officer Gen. Martin Dempsey wrote in a letter to House Foreign Affairs committee ranking Democrat Eliot Engel (D-NY) Monday (Aug 19), two days before the alleged attack in Ghouta. “The loss of Assad’s Air Force would negate his ability to attack opposition forces from the air, but it would also escalate and potentially further commit the United States to the conflict,” while not being “militarily decisive.”

Russia’s Foreign Ministry called Friday on both the Syrian government and the rebels to grant access to Ghouta to a UN chemical weapons inspection team currently in Damascus. Moscow has suggested that the August 21st attack in eastern Ghouta may have been staged by the opposition as a “pre-planned provocation.”

But British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Friday that the chances that the rebels conspired to stage the attack are “vanishingly small,” and questioned why the Syrian regime had so far refused permission to the UN team to visit the area.

“It seems the Assad regime has something to hide,” Hague told the BBC Friday. “Why else have they not allowed the UN team to go there?”

The attack is “not something that a humane or civilized world can ignore,” Hague said.

The Syrian opposition, meantime, said Friday that they would guarantee the UN inspectors’ safe passage. “We will ensure the safety of the U.N. team,” Khaled Saleh, spokesman for the opposition Syrian National Coalition, told a news conference in Istanbul Friday, Reuters reported. “It is critical that those inspectors get there within 48 hours.”

US and allied “intelligence agencies have made a preliminary assessment that Syrian government forces used chemical weapons to attack an area near Damascus this week and that the act likely had high-level approval from President Bashar al-Assad's government, according to U.S. and European security sources,” Reuters’ Mark Hosenball reported Friday, adding that they cautioned the assessment was preliminary and they are “still seeking conclusive proof.”

U.S. intelligence “detected activity at known Syrian chemical weapons sites before Wednesday's possible chemical weapons attack,” CBS’s David Martin reported Friday.

“Similar activity has been detected before, and the assumption then was that the Syrians were moving things around for security reasons,” Martin wrote. “Now, according to the officials, the most recent activity, which was detected last week, is seen as possible preparation for Wednesday's attack.”

Meantime, there was a flurry of international consultations underway to deliberate on a possible response, even one that may lack a UN Security Council mandate. US Secretary of State John Kerry spoke by phone Thursday and Friday with the Syrian opposition council's President Jarba, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, UK Foreign Secretary Hague, French Foreign Minister Fabius, Jordanian Foreign Minister Judeh, Qatari Foreign Minister al-Atiyah, Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu, EU High Representative Ashton, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, Arab League Secretary-General Al Eraby, German Foreign Minister Westerwelle, Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed, Italian Foreign Minister Bonino, and Egyptian Interim Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy, the State Department said.

“During all of these calls, the Secretary reiterated the United States’ commitment to continue working urgently to gather the facts on the ground and also expressed our concern and outrage over the disturbing reports, photos, and videos we have seen, which shock the conscience and that anyone would see as beyond the pale,” a senior State Department official said by email Friday.

(Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP.)

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