President Barack Obama said on Friday that the deployment of chemical weapons by the Syrian government was a "game changer" while noting that intelligence assessments proving that such weapons had been used were still preliminary.
"Horrific as it is when mortars are being fired on civilians and people are being indiscriminately killed, to use potential weapons of mass destruction on civilian populations crosses another line with respect to international norms and international law," Obama told reporters at the White House.
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"That is going to be a game changer. We have to act prudently. We have to make these assessments deliberately. But I think all of us ... recognize how we cannot stand by and permit the systematic use of weapons like chemical weapons on civilian populations," he said.
Obama was speaking during a meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah II in the Oval Office.
'Airtight' case (Photo: Reuters)
The White House said on Friday it was continuing to study evidence that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons and would not set a timetable for corroborating reports.
"I'm not going to set a timeline, because the facts need to be what drives this investigation, not a deadline," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters at a briefing.
"We are continuing to work to build on the assessments made by the intelligence community, that the degrees of confidence here are varying, that this is not an airtight case," he said.
In response to a question, Carney said that President Barack Obama would consider a range of options including, but not exclusive to, military force, should it be determined that Syria has used chemical weapons.
"He retains all options to respond to that, all options," Carney said. "Often the discussion, when people mention all options are on the table, everyone just talks about military force. It's important to remember that there are options available to a commander in chief in a situation like this that include but are not exclusive to that option."
David Cameron said on Friday that growing evidence of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime was "extremely serious".
Alleged chemical weapon victim
Britain's prime minister agreed with US President Barack Obama that such use would represent a "red line" for the international community, but said the response would likely be political rather than military.
"This is extremely serious. And I think what President Obama said was absolutely right, that this should form for the international community a red line for us to do more," Cameron told the BBC. "I've always been keen for us to do more.
"The question," he added, "is how do we step up the pressure.
Red line? Aleppo victims (Photo: EPA)
However, assertions of chemical weapon use in Syria made by Western and Israeli officials citing photos, sporadic shelling and traces of toxins fail to meet the standard of proof needed for a UN team of experts waiting to gather their own field evidence.
Weapons inspectors from the Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) will only determine whether banned chemical agents were used if they are able to access sites and take soil, blood, urine or tissue samples and examine them in certified laboratories, Michael Luhan, a spokesman for the OPCW said.
Thursday, after the White House claimed Assad's regime used chemical weapons in the civil war currently ravaging the country, members of Congress urged Obama to act to “secure” Syria’s chemical weapons.
Republican Senator John McCain led the revulsion and anger in Congress, saying it was now up to Obama to coordinate a response that prevents such weapons, including the agent sarin, from falling into the hands of terrorists or extremist groups.
Obama “said that if Bashar Assad used chemical weapons, it would be a game-changer, that it would cross a red line. I think it’s pretty obvious that a red line has been crossed,” McCain told reporters.
“We have to have operational capability to secure these chemical weapon stocks,” he added. “We do not want them to fall into the wrong hands, and the wrong hands are a number of participants in the struggle that’s taking place in Syria.”
For months the veteran Republican has urged Obama to take a more pro-active role in the Syrian conflict and pressed him to help arm Syrian rebels and ensure safe havens in the country.
On Thursday he called for increased White House pressure on Russia and Iran to stop supplying weapons to Assad, and greater commitment to aid Syria’s rebel groups fighting Damascus.
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