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Obama backs away from speedy Syria strike, after UK turnaround

President says he’s not yet made up his mind about how to respond to Assad’s alleged chemical weapons use

US President Barack Obama (photo credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin/File)
US President Barack Obama (photo credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin/File)

President Barack Obama on Wednesday evening appeared to back away from the idea of an imminent strike on Syria, saying multiple times in an interview broadcast on several US networks, “I have not made a decision.”

Obama spoke after the UK clearly backtracked from Prime Minister David Cameron’s earlier supportive stance, with the Conservative-led government indicating it would now wait several days for a report by UN inspectors looking into last Wednesday’s alleged chemical attack on Syrian civilians by the forces of President Bashar Assad, and for Parliament to vote on the matter.

Syria and Iran on Wednesday warned the US stridently against intervention.

In the PBS interview, which followed Obama’s speech on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic “I have a dream” address, the president responded to questions regarding the timing of a Syria strike by saying, “I have gotten options from our military, had extensive discussions with my national security team.”

He went on: “Although what’s happened there is tragic, and although I have called for Assad to leave and make sure that we got a transitional government that can be inclusive in Syria, what I’ve also concluded is that direct military engagement, involvement in the civil war in Syria would not help the situation on the ground.”

“And so we’ve been very restrained,” he added.

Obama stated that the firm international stance against the use of chemical weapons needed to be maintained, but said, “I have no interest in any kind of open-ended conflict in Syria, but we do have to make sure that when countries break international norms on weapons like chemical weapons that could threaten us, that they’re held accountable.”

In an apparent reference to a US-Russian diplomatic meeting on Syria that was postponed earlier this week, Obama said, “We hope that in fact ultimately a political transition can take place in Syria, and we’re prepared to work with anybody, the Russian and others, to try and bring the parties together to resolve the conflict.”

Earlier Wednesday, both Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had stated that the Assad regime must be punished for last week’s chemical attack. But the British government issued a statement later which dialed down the rhetoric and called for the UN Security Council to wait for the report of UN inspectors in Syria, and also for the British Parliament to take two votes on a possible strike.

The Parliament was due to meet in an emergency session on Thursday to take up the Syria issue, but what had been expected to be a vote on approving a strike, will now apparently be a less conclusive and definitive session.

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