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Obama wants more certainty on Syrian chemical arms

Published: Updated:

President Barack Obama warned on Tuesday against a rush to judgment on Syria’s use of chemical arms, but said proof of their use would trigger a “rethink” of his reluctance to use military force.

As critics complain that he let Syria cross a U.S. “red line,” Obama said Washington believed chemical weapons had been used in the country’s vicious civil war but did not know exactly who had fired them.

At a White House news conference, Obama also appeared to set the criteria for a U.S. military intervention as established proof that President Bashar al-Assad’s regime directly ordered the use of chemical weapons.

Obama faced the press amid rising political pressure over reports by U.S. intelligence that Syrian forces used sarin gas against their foes, despite his previous warnings that deploying chemical weapons would be a “game changer.”

“I’ve got to make sure I’ve got the facts. That’s what the American people would expect.”

“If I can establish in a way that not only the United States but also the international community feel confident in the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, then that is a game changer,” he warned.

“By game changer, I mean we would have to rethink the range of options that are available to us.”

“There are options that are available to me that are on the shelf right now that we have not deployed, and that’s a spectrum of options,” Obama said, saying he had asked the Pentagon for plans, but did not divulge them.

Possible Pentagon options include a risky operation to secure chemical weapons stocks to ensure they do not get into the hands of radical groups or to destroy them, either by an assault team or air strikes.

New “chemical” incident

Syria’s U.N. ambassador alleged Tuesday that an opposition group had used “chemical material” during an attack near the city of Idlib.

With international pressure mounting on President Bashar al-Assad over the two year-old conflict, ambassador Bashar Jaafari told reporters the incident was an attempt to make it look as though government forces had used chemical arms.

Jaafari said “terrorist groups” had got into the town of Saraqeb and “spread seemingly the contents of plastic bags containing a kind of powder which must be most probably a chemical material.”

The ambassador said many people were affected by the “heinous and irresponsible act” that was an attempt to “implicate the Syrian government on a false basis.”

The Syrian government is refusing to let U.N. experts into the country to investigate whether chemical weapons have been used in the conflict, in which more than 70,000 people have been killed.

The government wants any investigation limited to its allegations that the opposition used chemical arms near the city of Aleppo last month. The United Nations and western countries want other allegations investigated.

Jaafari demanded that the U.N. provide the government with details of information given by Britain and France to the United Nations about the possible use of chemical weapons by government forces.

“There cannot be, at any time, a mission of investigation moving freely on Syrian territory just on the basis of letters containing allegations,” he said.