Obama cautions against US action over Syria gas attack

US president shies away from military action over gas attack, even though one year earlier he called chemical weapons use a 'red line'

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 August, 2013, 3:10am

US President Barack Obama called the apparent gassing of hundreds of Syrian civilians a "big event of grave concern" but stressed yesterday he was in no rush to embroil Americans in a costly new war.

As opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad braved the frontlines around Damascus to smuggle tissue samples to UN inspectors from victims of Wednesday's mass poisoning, Obama brushed over an interviewer's reminder that he once called chemical weapons a "red line" that could trigger US action.

His caution contrasted with calls for action from Nato allies, including France, Britain and Turkey, where leaders saw little doubt Assad's forces had staged pre-dawn missile strikes that rebels say killed between 500 and well over 1,000 people.

Obama played down the chances of Assad co-operating with the UN experts who might provide conclusive evidence of what happened, if given access soon. In any case, he would not react in haste to calls for US intervention that would "mire" Americans in an undertaking that was counter to their long-term interests.

Noting budget constraints, problems of international law and a continuing US casualty toll in Afghanistan, Obama told CNN: "Sometimes what we've seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations, can result in us being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region.

"The United States continues to be the one country that people expect can do more than just simply protect their borders. But that does not mean that we have to get involved with everything immediately," he said, reflecting long-standing wariness to follow the example of his predecessor George W. Bush and his ventures in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"We have to think through strategically what's going to be in our long-term national interests."

Obama also voiced caution about cutting aid to Egypt's army-backed rulers following the overthrow of the elected Islamist president - a fate some say has aborted Arab hopes for democracy that were conceived in the 2011 uprisings across the region.

Asked about his comment - made a year and a day before the toxic fumes hit sleeping residents of rebel-held Damascus suburbs - that chemical weapons would be a "red line" for the United States, he replied: "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."

Russia and China have vetoed United Nations Security Council moves against Assad in the past.

International powers, including Moscow, have urged Assad to co-operate with the UN inspection team which arrived on Sunday.

However, there was no public response from the Syrian government, whose forces have been pounding the region for days, making any mission by the international experts perilous - as well as possibly destroying evidence. Syria denies being responsible and has in the past accused rebels of using gas.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he believed the Syrian government was responsible for the casualties, which go on rising as medical staff and others fall sick. "It seems the Assad regime has something to hide," he said.