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Obama Careful Regarding Chemical Weapons in Syria

"We intend to investigate thoroughly exactly what happened," says Obama when asked whether chemical weapons were used in Syria.
By Elad Benari
First Publish: 3/21/2013, 4:15 AM

Syrian soldiers
Syrian soldiers
AFP file

U.S. President Barack Obama was careful on Wednesday when asked about the “red line” he had set regarding the use of chemical weapons in the ongoing civil war in Syria.

Israel has assessed that chemical weapons were used in attacks on the cities of Aleppo and Damascus, but Obama appeared to disagree with that assessment when asked about it during his news conference in Jerusalem with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

Channel 2’s Udi Segal asked Obama, “On a practical level, you have said today and also in the past that the use of chemical weapons would be crossing of a red line. It seems that this red line was crossed yesterday. What specifically do you intend to do about it?”

He was referring to the fact that in the past Obama publicly warned Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad that the use of chemical weapons “would be totally unacceptable.”

In response, Obama indicated that not all the facts on what happened in Syria on Tuesday were clear, saying, “With respect to chemical weapons, we intend to investigate thoroughly exactly what happened. Obviously in Syria right now you've got a war zone, you have information that's filtered out, but we have to make sure that we know exactly what happened, what was the nature of the incident, what can we documented, what can be proved. So I've instructed my teams to work closely with all other countries in the region and international organizations and institutions to find out precisely whether or not this red line was crossed.

“I will note, without at this point having all the facts before me, that we know the Syrian government has the capacity to carry out chemical weapon attacks; we know that there are those in the Syrian government who expressed a willingness to use chemical weapons if necessary to protect themselves; I am deeply skeptical of any claim that in fact it was the opposition that used chemical weapons.  Everybody who knows the facts of the chemical weapon stockpile inside of Syria as well as the Syrian government's capabilities, I think would question those claims, but I know that they're floating out there right now.

“The broader point is that once we establish the facts, I have made clear that the use of chemical weapons is a game changer, and I won't make an announcement today about next steps because I think we have to gather the facts.  But I do think that when you start seeing weapons that can cause potential devastation and mass casualties and you led that genie out of the bottle, then you are looking potentially at even more horrific scenes that we've already seen in Syria, and the international community has to act on that additional information. But as always the case when it comes to issues of war and peace, I think having the facts before you act is very important,” said Obama.

Earlier Wednesday, Minister of Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Yuval Steinitz said in an interview that it is “apparently clear” that either Syrian rebels or the Damascus regime have used chemical weapons in the country's two-year civil war.

"This is very concerning for us and we must deal with it urgently," said Steinitz.

Syrian rebels and the regime exchanged accusations of chemical weapons use on Tuesday for the first time since the March 2011 uprising, which has already claimed the lives of over 70,000 people.

The chairman of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Mike Rogers, said on Tuesday that there is a "high probability" that Syria used chemical weapons in the ongoing civil war.

"We need that final verification, but given everything we know over the last year and a half, I would come to the conclusion that they are either positioned for use, and ready to do that, or in fact have been used," he told CNN.