WASHINGTON -- The White House made it clear Friday that it was in no rush to take action in Syria despite findings by intelligence agencies that chemical weapons had been used there, saying it was "not an airtight case" and that more information would be needed.
President Obama repeated his past assertions that the use of chemical weapons would cross a line and produce an American response, but he indicated that he was not yet satisfied with what he had been told, calling it "preliminary." He gave no hint about what would convince him or what action he might take.
"We have to act prudently," he told reporters before a meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan. "We have to make these assessments deliberately. But I think all of us, not just in the United States but around the world, recognize how we cannot stand by and permit the systematic use of weapons like chemical weapons on civilian populations."
He said he wanted "more direct evidence and confirmation" of chemical weapons use and vowed "a very vigorous investigation" to determine that. "Obtaining confirmation and strong evidence, all of those things we have to make sure that we work on with the international community," he said. "And we ourselves are going to be putting a lot of resources into focusing on this."
The president's comments came a day after the White House sent a letter to Congressional leaders disclosing that intelligence agencies had concluded that President Bashar al-Assad's government had used the chemical agent sarin on a small scale in its battle to suppress an armed uprising. The intelligence agencies had "varying degrees of confidence" in their conclusion, and officials indicated that they would seek additional evidence.
Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said at a briefing before Mr. Obama's meeting with King Abdullah that the intelligence was not conclusive enough. "This is not an airtight case," he said. The administration "wants to continue to build information and put together a credible set of facts that can be corroborated, that's based on firm evidence, that can be reviewed, and that is what we are endeavoring to do."
Mr. Carney said the White House would not say how long would be needed to conclude its assessment. "The president wants the facts," he said. "And I'm not going to set a timeline, because the facts need to be what drives the investigation, not a deadline."
The question is critical because Mr. Obama has previously declared that the use of chemical weapons would cross a "red line" and be a "game changer" in terms of American involvement in the long-running conflict. "We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized," he said last August. "That would change my calculus. That would change my equation."
But he has never defined what "a whole bunch" means, or how his calculus would change. Mr. Obama has been loath to intervene militarily in Syria or to provide lethal aid to the Syrian rebels. While Senator John McCain of Arizona and a few other Republicans have urged Mr. Obama to get tougher, there is little appetite among others in Washington for direct action and a wariness about helping groups that have ties to Islamic extremists.
Mr. Obama repeated some of his earlier language on Friday. "To use potential weapons of mass destruction on civilian populations crosses another line with respect to international norms and international law," he said. "And that is going to be a game changer."
"For the Syrian government to utilize chemical weapons on its people crosses a line that will change my calculus and how the United States approaches these issues," he added. "So this is not an on and off switch. This is an ongoing challenge that all of us have to be concerned about."
The White House has pointed to the precedent of the Iraq war that President George W. Bush started in 2003, wary of again taking action on the basis of incomplete or possibly inaccurate assessments of another Arab country's weapons of mass destruction.
Mr. Carney said the White House would "look at the past for guidance when it comes to the need to be very serious about gathering all the facts, establishing chain of custody, linking evidence of the use of chemical weapons to specific incidents and actions taken by the regime, and that's of course what we will do, because that's the responsible thing to do."world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.