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WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama today played down the prospect of speedy U.S. intervention in Syria, stressing the difficulty of ordering military action against the Assad government without a strong international coalition and a legal mandate from the United Nations.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Obama has asked the Pentagon to provide military options in light of reports that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against civilians. While Hagel declined to discuss any specific force movements, U.S. defense officials said the Navy moved a fourth warship into the region. Each can launch ballistic missiles.
“The Defense Department has a responsibility to provide the president with options for contingencies, and that requires positioning our forces, positioning our assets, to be able to carry out different options — whatever options the president might choose,” Hagel told reporters traveling with him to Asia.
U.S. Navy ships are capable of a variety of military action, including launching Tomahawk cruise missiles, as they did against Libya in 2011 as part of an international action that led to the overthrow of the Libyan government.
While the Obama administration weighed military responses to this week’s claims of a large-scale chemical weapons attack near Damascus, Obama spoke as cautiously as ever about getting involved in a war that has killed more than 100,000 people and now includes Hezbollah and al-Qaida.
The president made no mention of the “red line” of chemical weapons use that he marked out for Syrian President Bashar Assad a year ago and that U.S. intelligence says has been breached at least on a small scale several times since.
“If the U.S. goes in and attacks another country without a U.N. mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it — do we have the coalition to make it work?” Obama said today. “Those are considerations that we have to take into account.”
The reported attack Wednesday, which killed at least 100 people in a Damascus suburb, would amount to the most heinous use of chemical weapons since Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds in the town of Halabja two-and-half decades ago.
Obama conceded in an interview on CNN’s “New Day” program that the episode is a “big event of grave concern” that requires American attention. He said any large-scale chemical weapons usage would affect “core national interests” of the United States and its allies. But nothing he said signaled a shift toward U.S. action.
U.S. defense officials said the additional warship was moved into the eastern Mediterranean Sea. There are no immediate orders for any missile launch into Syria, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss ship movements publicly. But if the U.S. wants to send a message to Assad, the most likely military action would be a Tomahawk missile strike, launched from a ship in the Mediterranean.
For a year now, Obama has threatened to punish Assad’s regime if it resorted to its chemical weapons arsenal, among the world’s vastest, saying use or even deployment of such weapons of mass destruction constituted a “red line” for him. A U.S. intelligence assessment concluded in June chemical weapons have been used in Syria’s civil war, but Washington has taken no military action against Assad’s forces.
U.S. officials have instead focused on trying to organize a peace conference between the government and opposition. Obama has authorized weapons deliveries to rebel groups, but none is believed to have been sent so far.
In his first comments on Syria since the alleged chemical attack, Obama said the U.S. is still trying to find out what happened.
U.S. confirmation took more than four months after rebels similarly reported chemical attacks in February, though in this instance a U.N. chemical weapons team is already on the ground in Syria. Assad’s government, then as now, has denied the claims as baseless.
Obama also cited the need for the U.S. to be part of a coalition in dealing with Syria. America’s ability by itself to solve the Arab country’s sectarian fighting is “overstated,” he said.
And, in a break from his tough rhetoric of August 2012, Obama suggested the importance of the U.N. authorizing military intervention like in 2011 when a U.S.-led bombing campaign helped oust Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Such a scenario is almost impossible to imagine in Syria’s case. Russia has made it clear that it won’t sign off on any such mission. Russia has exercised its veto to block all efforts at the U.N. Security Council to condemn or put sanctions on the Assad regime, its closest ally in the Middle East.
Obama said Americans expect him to consider “what is in our long-term national interests” in deciding what to do.
Referring to America’s long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he added: “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.”
Internal deliberations in recent days haven’t indicated any imminent policy shift, according to officials. They described senior members of Obama’s administration divided over whether and how to respond to the latest allegations. Many of those same advisers are staking out roughly similar positions on a list of military options that have hardly changed in the last year.
One senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak for attribution about the deliberations, said U.S. enforcement of a no-fly zone has been effectively eliminated as an option.
The administration’s cooling on the no-fly zone is hardly surprising given the recent assessment of the option by Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Dempsey told Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Carl Levin, D-Mich., last month that setting up such patrols to protect Syrian rebels would require hundreds of U.S. aircraft, cost as much as $1 billion a month and offer no assurance of changing the war’s momentum.
In a follow-up letter to Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., this week, the general advised against even using cruise missiles or other American weapons from “standoff” positions to take out the Assad regime’s aerial assets because he didn’t think Syria’s rebels would support U.S. interests if they seized power.
Other administration officials said the U.S. is hoping to collect evidence of this week’s attack faster than previous ones in which chemical weapons were believed to have been used.
One official said that the administration believes this is feasible because the evidence is fresher, the attack deadlier and witnesses more plentiful. Others, however, said the Syrian government’s pummeling of the area in recent days makes it harder for U.N. investigators and others to reach the site of the alleged attack.
Secretary of State John Kerry, who has tried to prod the administration toward a more aggressive approach, spoke by telephone with Syrian opposition leaders, the heads of the United Nations and the Arab League, and European and Middle Eastern foreign ministers. They discussed coordinating information collection, according to officials.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said today that Obama doesn’t see any scenario where he’d have to authorize putting American boots on the ground in Syria. The president is evaluating next steps in Syria based on “the best interests of national security,” Earnest said, adding that concrete evidence of chemical weapons use “would have an impact on the calculus.”
Americans are hardly clamoring for war. Polls have consistently found that most people in the United States, tired from the costly and bloody fights in the Muslim world over the last decade, see little upside to U.S. involvement in a conflict that in some ways mirrors that of Iraq.
While the fighting stemmed from Assad’s brutal crackdown on Arab Spring-inspired democracy protests, it has increasingly become defined as an interethnic war between Sunnis and Alawites, drawing in militant and terrorist groups on both sides of the battlefield.
Despite sharp criticism from some lawmakers, Obama isn’t really under pressure from Congress.
Democrats and Republicans still haven’t agreed on the best approach to Syria and are sharply split even within their own parties.
Among Republicans, hawks led by McCain are coming up against tea party isolationists such as Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky. Democrats are divided between those who see the president wading dangerously toward war and hawks and humanitarian interventionists who believe he is allowing atrocities to continue.