President Obama said Tuesday that advisers have prepared options for a U.S. response if the administration confirms chemical weapon use by the Assad regime in Syria, but he continued to urge caution as facts are gathered.
The president reiterated that the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would be a “game changer,” and would necessitate that “we would have to rethink the range of options that are available to us.”
Late last week, the White House said that U.S. intelligence has determined “with varying degrees of confidence” that chemical weapons had in fact been used in Syria. At the time, newly installed Sec. of Defense Chuck Hagel said that his role was to “give the president options on a policy issue…And we’ll be prepared to do that as the president requires.”
What those options might be has remained unclear.
Speaking at a press conference marking 100 days into his second term on Tuesday, Obama again declined to specify what those options might be and which ones advisers from the Pentagon had presented to him, but said: “There are some options that we might not otherwise exercise that we would strongly consider.”
He added that there are options available to him “on the shelf right now” that have not yet been deployed.
The president, though, reiterated a call for more evidence before determining a course of action even as members of Congress continued to call on his administration to move faster.
“What we now have is evidence that chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria, but we don’t know how they were used, when they were used, [or] who used them,” he said. “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. That’s what the American people would expect.”
The president also sought to stress the action his administration has already taken on Syria and the need for an international response to the ongoing bloody two-year-old conflict that has cost the lives of tens of thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands. He called the war a “blemish on the international community,” and noted that Assad has already “attacked and killed his own people” regardless of chemical weapon use.
Obama also acknowledged that chemical weapons allow for “even more devastating attacks on civilians,” but also “raises the strong possibility that those chemical weapons can fall into the wrong hands” and threaten the security of the U.S. and its allies.
While the president cited the United States’ support for sanctions, increased humanitarian aid, and non-lethal assistance to the Syrian opposition groups, he at no point suggested involving U.S. troops in a ground war in Syria.
Recent poll numbers by the New York Times/CBS News show that Americans are largely against intervention, with 62% of respondents claiming the U.S. does not have a responsibility to do something about the fighting in Syria.
A December 2012 Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that American opinion varied with the potential circumstances surrounding intervention: Only 17% supported getting the military involved at that date, but the number jumped to 63% if military weapons were used, and 70% if Syria loses control of its chemical weapons stockpile.
A minority–just 46%–of Americans said they approved of the president’s handling of foreign policy in a Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted April 11-14.