A devastated street in the Salaheddine district of the northern city of Aleppo.
BEIRUT: 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 alleged mass poisoning, Obama brushed over a 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 about 1,300 people.
While the West accused Assad of a cover-up by preventing the UN team from visiting the scene, Moscow said the rebels were impeding an investigation.
The UN released data showing that a million children were among refugees forced to flee Syria, calling it a “shameful milestone”.
Obama played down the chances of Assad cooperating with 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 US continues to be the one country that people expect can do more than just 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 unpopular 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 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 US, he said: “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 UN Security Council moves against Assad in the past and oppose military action.
International powers, including Moscow, have urged Assad to cooperate with the UN team which arrived on Sunday to pursue earlier allegations of chemical weapons attacks and give them access to affected areas before evidence deteriorates.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who is despatching a top official to lobby Assad, said: “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.”
Opposition activists said they had been in contact with the UN team in Damascus and had sent tissue samples with couriers trying to slip across from the Ghouta region into the government-held centre to deliver them to the inspectors. The rebels’ efforts could prove futile; only material that has a clear provenance and a “chain of custody” would generally be treated as evidence by UN inspectors.
The longer the team waits for permission to investigate, the less likely it is to get to the bottom of an incident in which opponents say government forces fired rockets laden with poison gas canisters into rebel-held neighbourhoods.
Images, including some by freelance photographers, showed scores of bodies laid out on floors with no visible signs of injury. Some had foam at the nose and mouth.
European officials said that options ranging from air strikes or a no-fly zone to providing heavy weapons to some rebels were all still on the table. But there was little prospect of concrete measures without US backing.
Turkey, fearful of instability on its long southern border, called for an end to talk and time-wasting.
Obama has asked US intelligence agencies to help establish what caused the deaths, a State Department spokeswoman said. But he has set no deadline.
The State Department said US and Russian diplomats would discuss Syria at The Hague on Wednesday, continuing contacts that have so far produced little to end the conflict.