Obama: Syria chemical attack an event of ‘grave concern’

President says US can’t solve Syria’s civil war; Russia backs probe of alleged gas attack, which UN chief says could be ‘crime against humanity’

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

AUBURN, NY — President Barack Obama says a possible chemical weapons attack in Syria this week is a “big event of grave concern” that has hastened the timeframe for determining a US response.

“This is something that is going to require America’s attention,” Obama said during an interview broadcast Friday.

However, the president said the notion that the US alone can end Syria’s bloody civil war is “overstated” and made clear he would seek international support before taking large-scale action.

“If the US goes in and attacks another country without a UN mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it, do we have the coalition to make it work,” he said in the interview on CNN’s “New Day” show. “Those are considerations that we have to take into account.”

Obama’s comments on Syria were his first since Wednesday’s alleged chemical weapons attack on the eastern suburbs of Damascus that killed at least 100 people. While he appeared to signal some greater urgency for a US response, his comments were largely in line with his previous statements throughout the two-year conflict.

The president said the US is still seeking conclusive evidence that chemical weapons were used this week. Such actions, he said, would be troubling and detrimental to “some core national interests that the United States has, both in terms of us making sure that weapons of mass destruction are not proliferating, as well as needing to protect our allies, our bases in the region.”

Wednesday’s attack came as a United Nations team was on the ground in Syria investigating earlier chemical weapons use. Obama has warned that deployment of the deadly gases would cross a “red line,” but the US response to the confirmed attacks earlier this year has been minimal.

That has opened Obama up to fierce criticism, both in the US and abroad. Among the critics is Arizona’s Republican Sen. John McCain, who says America’s credibility has been damaged because Obama has not taken more forceful action to stop the violence. McCain ran against Obama for president in 2008.

The president pushed back at those assertions in the interview aired Friday, saying that while the US remains “the one indispensable nation,” that does not mean the country should get involved everywhere immediately.

“Well, you know, I am sympathetic to Sen. McCain’s passion for helping people work through what is an extraordinarily difficult and heartbreaking situation, both in Syria and in Egypt,” he said.

“Sometimes what we’ve seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff, that does not turn out well,” he said. “We have to think through strategically what’s going to be in our long-term national interests, even as we work cooperatively internationally to do everything we can to put pressure on those who would kill innocent civilians.”

The US has called on Syria to allow the UN team currently on the ground to investigate this most recent attack. However, the president was pessimistic about those prospects, saying, “We don’t expect cooperation, given their past history.”

More than 100,000 people have been killed in Syria during more than two years of clashes between forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad and opposition fighters seeking to overthrow his regime. The US has long called for Assad to go and has sent humanitarian aid to the rebels, but those steps have failed to push the Syrian leader from power.

After the earlier chemical weapons attacks, Obama did approve the shipment of small weapons and ammunition to the Syrian rebels, but there is little sign that the equipment has arrived.

Obama addressed the deepening crisis in Syria from central New York, where he is on a two-day bus tour promoting policies to make college more affordable.

Also on Friday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon called the reported gas attack Wednesday a “crime against humanity” if confirmed.

“Any use of chemical weapons anywhere, by anybody, under any circumstances, would violate international law,” Ban said at a UN event in Seoul Friday. “Such a crime against humanity should result in serious consequences for the perpetrator.

“There is no time to waste,” Ban added.

“I can think of no good reason why any party — either government or opposition forces — would decline this opportunity to get to the truth of the matter.”

Meanwhile, the Russian Foreign Ministry called for an independent probe by United Nations experts into what Syrian rebels alleged was a chemical weapons attack by government forces on the outskirts of Damascus.

The statement released on Friday said that Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry had discussed the situation by telephone on Thursday, and concluded that they had a “mutual interest” in calling for the UN investigation.

The statement said Russia had called for Syrian President Bashar Assad’s embattled government to cooperate with an investigation, but questions remained about the willingness of the opposition, “which must secure safe access of the mission to the location of the incident.”

Russia has been one of Assad’s key allies in the international arena.

The UN special envoy to Syria said Friday he has moved his base to Geneva to prepare for a conference aimed at finding a political solution to the deepening conflict.

Lakhdar Brahimi says he has long planned to relocate from the Middle East, and is now in “the last stage of preparation” for a second Geneva peace conference to follow up on the June 2012 foreign ministers’ conference.

Brahimi told UN television in an interview released Friday that a conference in September remains a possibility.

He said resumption in negotiations over Syria’s future is imperative, but the big obstacle to bringing the sides together is that “each one of them thinks that they can win militarily.”

Another US-Russia meeting to prepare for Geneva is planned for Wednesday.

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