Obama skeptical of Assad claim on chemical weapons

March 20, 2013 - 11:29 PM
US Obama Mideast Israel

President Barack Obama pauses as he answers a question during a joint news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Israel, Wednesday, March 20, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

JERUSALEM (AP) — President Barack Obama said Wednesday that the United States is investigating whether chemical weapons have been deployed in Syria, but he's "deeply skeptical" of claims by Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime that rebel forces were behind such an attack.

Both the Assad regime and Syrian rebels have accused each other of using chemical weapons in an attack on Tuesday that the government says killed 31 and wounded more than 100. But Obama suggested it's more likely that if the weapons were used, the Syrian government was behind the attack.

"We know the Syrian government has the capacity to carry out chemical weapon attacks," Obama said. "We know that there are those are in the Syrian government who have 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 weapons stockpiles inside of Syria as well as the Syrian government capabilities, I think, would question those claims."

"Once we establish the facts, I have made clear that the use of chemical weapons is a game changer," Obama said in a news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Obama said he wouldn't announce what the next steps would be while the investigation is unfolding. But he echoed his statement over the summer that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a "red line" for the United States.

"When you start seeing weapons that can cause potential devastation and mass casualties and you let that genie out of the bottle, then you are looking potentially at even more horrific scenes than we've already seen in Syria. And the international community has to act on that additional information," Obama said.

"We have been clear that the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people would be a serious and tragic mistake," Obama said.

Obama said the U.S. policy not to intervene militarily thus far is based on his desire to solve the problem as a global community. "It's a world problem ... when tens of thousands of people are being slaughtered, including innocent women and children," Obama said.

Netanyahu said the two leaders discussed Syria during their private meeting earlier. He said the two countries share a goal of preventing Syria's weapons arsenal from falling into the hands of terrorists.

Obama said the United States shares the concern that the weapons could be transferred to a group like Hezbollah and used against Israel. "The Assad regime must understand that they will be held accountable for the use of chemical weapons or their transfer to terrorists," Obama said.

The president's first comments on the reports came shortly after the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, told Congress of an untenable situation in Syria as the civil war grinds into its third year. The United Nations has estimated 70,000 have been killed, more than 1 million refugees have fled to neighboring countries and 2.5 million have been displaced internally.

The Syrian people "face a new level of ruthlessness from the Assad regime, which is raining Scud missiles down on residential neighborhoods, destroying hospitals and schools, and sending its thugs rampaging through the streets to terrorize their fellow citizens. The carnage is appalling," Ford said.

He insisted that the ideal outcome is a "negotiated political transition" to the crisis without Assad.

Ford said the military balance is turning against the Assad regime, which has lost some critical strategic locations such as the borders with Turkey and Iraq. The ambassador also said there has been heavy fighting in Damascus "right up close to where the president lives."

Ford said Iran is increasing its military assistance to Assad's regime and the outside help has persuaded him that he can prevail.

"I think today he still thinks he can win militarily with help from Russia, from Iran, from Lebanese Hezbollah," Ford said. "But I think he also must understand as his windows rattle, because the fighting is getting closer, he must be thinking about whether or not his calculations are correct."

Ford was pressed repeatedly about what military action the United States might take but declined to speculate at the public hearing. Lawmakers uneasy with military involvement — or even the prospect of arming the opposition — reflected a war-weariness after more than a decade of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Republican Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, who noted the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq this week, repeatedly tried to get Ford to elaborate for Congress and the American people about what could happen next in Syria if chemical weapons were used.

Ford declined. Perry, alluding to Iraq, said, "We don't want the current administration making the mistake of past administrations."

In fact, no consensus has emerged in Congress about what further steps should be taken to break the stalemate in Syria. Some, such as Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, favor strikes on Syrian air defenses, establishment of a no-fly zone and arming the opposition.

Others, like Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said Wednesday that providing weapons to the Syrian opposition risks having the weapons fall into the wrong hands.

"The unknown can be dangerous and the vetting of the opposition is not enough when it comes to providing lethal aid that could be used against our allies, such as Israel, or the United States in a post-Assad era," she said.

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Associated Press writer Donna Cassata in Washington contributed to this report.