White House: Poison gas attack in Syria would threaten US national security

This week's violence in Syria was a “mass casualty incident” that would threaten U.S. national security if it's confirmed to have involved chemical weapons, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Friday.

Earnest said the administration is weighing retaliatory options following reports that Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces killed more than 1,000 people with poison gas on Wednesday. He told reporters before the Obama's town hall at Binghamton University that such an attack would change the president's “calculus” on whether to get more involved in the conflict that has been raging since March 2011.

“In this situation, when there are weapons of mass destruction involved — or when there is evidence that weapons of mass destruction may be involved — that would have an impact on the calculus about the impact that this has on our national security,” Earnest said. “Ultimately, that is the criteria that the president will use as he evaluates the best course of action in this situation, that is the best interests of national security.”

“The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and in this case there’s some evidence for that, it’s certainly something that the president is very concerned about. And it does have significant implications for our national security,” Earnest said.

Earnest declined to give more details about the steps being considered. Defense and intelligence officials met at the White House for three-and-a-half hours on Thursday to consider options, including missile strikes or a prolonged air campaign.

“We have said that the assistance that we provide to the opposition is on an upward trajectory. We’ve described it as expanding in scope and in scale. And we have long said that all options remain on the table when it comes to Syria,” Earnest said. “At the same time, the president has also indicated very clearly that he did not foresee a situation in which American boots on the ground would be in the best interests of American national security.”

President Obama, during an interview with CNN that ran Friday, called the latest allegations “a big event of grave concern.” But he warned about the limits of U.S. influence in a “complex sectarian” situation. 

“Sometimes what we've seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff, that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations, can result in us being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region,” Obama said.

Please send tips and comments to Julian Pecquet: jpecquet@thehill.com

Follow us on Twitter: @TheHillGlobal and @JPecquetTheHill