WASHINGTON -- With lawmakers of both parties clamoring for some kind of larger U.S. role in Syria’s civil war, President Barack Obama sought Friday to slow a rush to judgment that regime forces have loosed chemical weapons on civilians, cautioning that “confirmation and strong evidence” of “this potential use” are still needed.
“We have to act prudently,” Obama said.
His guarded statements appeared to reflect what one U.S. intelligence official said were intelligence assessments of “low or moderate confidence” that regime forces had used the lethal nerve agent sarin on a small scale. The official requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
In U.S. intelligence analytical parlance, “moderate confidence” generally means that information lacks sufficient corroboration, while low confidence usually means that it’s too fragmented, it isn’t authenticated and there are major concerns about the credibility of the sources.
The president’s restraint also stemmed from lingering popular anger over his predecessor’s use of bogus and exaggerated intelligence to fan support for the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and his own reluctance to become embroiled in another foreign war as he pulls U.S. combat forces out of Afghanistan after nearly 12 years of conflict.
CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency assessments agreed that there was insufficient evidence from tissue and soil samples to conclude concretely that forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad had launched sarin against civilians, someone who’s familiar with the issue told McClatchy.
“There are these tiny little data points, none of which are conclusive,” said the person, who asked not to be further identified because of the issue’s sensitivity. U.S. intelligence agencies “can’t say anything conclusively about this right now,” he said.
The U.S. intelligence findings, made public Thursday in letters sent to top lawmakers by the White House, follow more definitively worded charges by Britain, France and Israel that Syrian forces have used chemical weapons. The White House letters stressed that harder evidence is required and said there were concerns about the “chain of custody” through which U.S. analysts obtained the “physiological samples” on which the assessments were based.
Despite the heavy caveats, the letters ignited calls by lawmakers of both parties for the president to make good on a pledge to intervene in Syria’s 2-year-old civil war if Assad crossed a “red line” by using chemical weapons. Most declined to outline specific steps that should be taken by Obama, who’s limited his response to providing radios, night-vision goggles and other nonlethal equipment to moderate rebel forces, humanitarian aid to civilians and organizational help to a coalition of moderate opposition leaders.
Speaking before talks Friday with King Abdullah of Jordan, whose country is struggling to cope with more than 500,000 Syrian refugees, the president said his position hadn’t shifted. In doing so, he indicated that he has yet to determine that Assad has crossed the red line that Obama first declared last August.
“I’ve been very clear publicly, but also privately, that 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,” the president said. At another point, he said the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons “is going to be a game-changer.”
Obama appeared anxious to tamp down assertions by lawmakers who’d been briefed Thursday and Friday that the U.S. intelligence assessments confirmed the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons.
Stressing that the U.S. intelligence reports were only “preliminary assessments,” the president explained that “knowing that potentially chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria doesn’t tell us when they were used, how they were used. Obtaining confirmation and strong evidence, all of those things we have to make sure that we work on with the international community. And we ourselves are going to be putting a lot of resources into focusing on this.
“We’re working with countries like Jordan to try to obtain more direct evidence and confirmation of this potential use.”
The State Department also sounded a cautious note, shifting its position yet again from earlier in the week, when Secretary of State John Kerry first dismissed Israeli reports that Syrian forces have used chemical weapons and then said such weapons were thought to have been deployed twice.
“We’re working to establish a definitive judgment as to whether or not the president’s red line of chemical weapons use has been crossed. We’re not there yet,” said the department’s acting deputy spokesman, Patrick Ventrell, who reminded reporters about the use of faulty intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq War.
Syria is thought to have large quantities of sarin and the deadly nerve agent VX, as well as mustard gas, and thousands of munitions to deliver them.
There are grave concerns that Islamist groups that are among the most effective rebel forces might seize some of those stockpiles and turn them against neighboring Israel or U.S. targets.
The Assad regime and rebel forces charged each other with using chemical weapons in heavy fighting last month in the country’s second-largest city, Aleppo, and the opposition accuses Assad’s forces of deploying them in the outskirts of Damascus.
The regime called for an international investigation, but it has yet to give permission to U.N. investigators who are waiting in Cyprus to enter the country.
Despite the administration’s caveats, lawmakers briefed by Kerry and Pentagon officials said Friday that they thought there was sufficient evidence to conclude that Assad had used chemical weapons.
Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, urged the United States to move slowly and to work with its allies and with Russia – which, along with Iran, is Assad’s main foreign supporter – to forge a response.
“The downside to Syria is there are elements of the opposition that are just as bad as the elements that control the government,” he said, referring to al Qaida-allied Islamist rebels. “It’s not just who you’re against, it’s who you’re for.”
“My judgment is that it’s very, very likely that a chemical agent has been used,” said Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., a member of the House Intelligence Committee.
Iran will be watching how Obama responds on Syria in determining whether to take seriously the U.S. leader’s warning that he isn’t ruling out any option – including military force – to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons, Pompeo said.
But skepticism grew among some experts, who questioned why Assad would use sarin only on a small scale and wondered why there weren’t more casualties if chemical weapons had been used as extensively as opposition activists have asserted.
“If you drop a bomb with sarin, how do you nail only one person?” asked Jeffrey Lewis, an expert with the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
Several opposition activists reached in Syria dismissed the issue, saying that ordinary people long ago had lost any confidence in a meaningful U.S. response to the Assad regime’s killing of civilians, their desperate lack of food and medicines, and the bloodshed that’s estimated to have killed more than 90,000 people and left more than 3 million homeless.
“Some people have even begun to wish that they (the regime) would just strike with chemical weapons and be done with it, because most of them are dying slowly of hunger and sickness,” said Naqaa Saadeq, who spoke by Skype from Aleppo. “The chemical weapon issue no longer scares people, because the bitter reality they are enduring is worse than chemical weapons.”
Matthew Schofield, Hannah Allam, William Douglas and Anita Kumar in Washington and David Enders in Beirut contributed to this article.