Obama blurs 'red line' on Syria

President Obama further blurred the “red line” he has imposed against Syria over chemical weapons on Tuesday, declining to lay out specific consequences if the line is crossed but saying it would be a “game changer” for the entire international community.

Asked about possible U.S. military action if it’s confirmed Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces have used chemical weapons, Obama said only that the administration would “rethink the range of options” available. 

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As the president sounded a cautious tone, however, there were reports Tuesday afternoon that he might be planning to take new steps. The Washington Post reported that Obama is now ready to provide arms to the opposition, although he had not made a final decision.

The president is reportedly planning to make a final decision in the coming weeks before a June meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has backed the Syrian regime.

Obama spoke by phone with Putin on Monday and expressed his “concern” that Assad’s regime might have used chemical weapons. He is also sending his secretary of State, John Kerry, to update the Russians next week about U.S. thinking regarding Syria.

National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden declined to confirm or deny the report about providing lethal arms.

“We continue to consider all other possible options that would accomplish our objective of hastening a political transition, but have no new announcements at this time,” Hayden said in a statement. 

Obama’s comments Tuesday represented the latest caution sign the administration has raised toward possible U.S. military action since the White House revealed last week it believed Assad’s forces used chemical weapons.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said Tuesday that he is not recommending a military response in Syria yet — and he questioned whether military action would even lead to a stable Syria.

“That’s the reason I’ve been cautious about the application of the military instrument of power,” Dempsey said at a lunch with reporters hosted by The Christian Science Monitor.

The White House disclosure of possible Syrian chemical weapons use has sparked a new round of calls for military action in Syria, with lawmakers urging the administration to take out Syria’s air defenses to establish a no-fly zone, or to provide arms to vetted rebel groups.

Lawmakers from both parties have warned that if Assad crossed Obama’s “red line” and the United States doesn’t respond, it could embolden the Assad regime to ramp up the use of chemical weapons.

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who have long called for U.S. military intervention, said in a statement Tuesday that U.S. ambiguity toward Syria has added to the current crisis.

“The credibility of the United States is on the line, not just with Syria, but with Iran, North Korea, and all of our enemies and friends who are watching closely to see whether the president backs up his words with action,” the senators said. 

“Unfortunately, the red line has been blurred with each passing day. It will not be long before Assad takes this delay as an invitation to use chemical weapons again on an even larger scale.”

The president last year said that if Assad’s forces used or transferred chemical weapons it would cross a “red line,” although he did not say then what consequences would ensue.

After the administration said last week that it had intelligence assessments that sarin gas was used in Syria, White House officials said the evidence had to be verified. 

They have frequently cited the problems with intelligence in the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion as a reason to proceed cautiously on Syria.

“When I am making decisions about America’s national security and the potential for taking additional action in response to chemical weapon use, I’ve got to make sure I’ve got the facts,” Obama said Tuesday. “What we now have is evidence that chemical weapons have been used inside Syria, but we don’t know how they were used, when they were used, who used them.”

The president also suggested Tuesday that he is not considering unilateral U.S. action. The use of chemical weapons “would be a game-changer not simply for the United States but for the international community,” he said. 

“If we end up rushing to judgment without hard, effective evidence, then we can find ourselves in position where can’t mobilize the international community to support what we do.”

Obama said that the U.S. is already “deeply invested” in trying to find a solution in Syria in which Assad leaves power. 

He noted that the administration has provided humanitarian and non-lethal aid to opposition groups; the U.S. has recently increased its non-lethal assistance to $250 million.

While many lawmakers have clamored for the White House to take additional steps, none — including McCain and Graham — have said they want “boots on the ground” in Syria.

Dempsey said that some of the actions being called for, such as a no-fly zone, are more complicated than many describe.

In order to disable Syria’s air defense, for instance, Dempsey said forces would have to be ready to extract airmen in hostile territory, whether they were shot down or had mechanical problems.

— Justin Sink contributed to this report.

— Updated at 8:20 p.m.