U.S. President Barack Obama.
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the White House, Washington, March 1, 2013. Photo by Reuters
Text size

U.S. President Barack Obama, who has said the use of chemical weapons by Syrian leader Bashar Assad would mark an unacceptable escalation of the country's long-running civil war, said on Tuesday that the U.S. must be more certain of all the facts before he decides on how the country will intervene in the conflict.

He added, however, that if it is determined that the Assad regime used chemical weapons "we would have to rethink the range of options that are available to us."

With the U.S. disengaging from the unpopular war in Afghanistan and  still smarting from the difficult conflict in Iraq, Obama has been reticent to unleash American military power in the Syrian fighting, a civil war that has killed tens of thousands of people. The president said the conflict is a "blemish on the international community generally."

But he said he was not prepared to rush to respond to growing evidence that chemical weapons had been used in Syria, something he termed would mark the crossing of a "red line" and a game-changer, Obama said: "I meant that we would have to rethink the range of options open to us."

In the White House news conference marking the 100th day of his second term, the U.S. president said he had a full range of such "options on the shelf" but he declined to enumerate them.

Many critics of Obama's disinclination to use the American military in Syria are calling for the president to establish safe zones for Syrian rebels, to protect them with a no-fly zone and begin sending arms to forces fighting to overthrow the Assad regime.

The problem facing the U.S. is that Syrian air defenses are far stronger than NATO allies faced when they intervened with air power in Libya, and many of the rebel forces are now identified as Islamic radicals, many of them associated with Al-Qaida and determined to establish a government based on a strict interpretation of Islamic law.

Noting the American humanitarian aid that has flowed towards victims of the conflict, Obama said the civil war has been "a slowly unfolding disaster for the Syrian people, and this is not a situation in which we've simply been bystanders."

But when measuring additional action, Obama said, "I've got to know I've got the facts."

"We don't know who used them. We don't have a chain of custody that establishes... exactly what happened." He further declared that the international community has to be completely confident in the assessment that chemical weapons have been used.

Asked about a topic that links terrorism and legislative efforts, Obama said he would "re-engage with Congress" on the future of the prison for detainees at Guantanamo in Cuba. As a candidate for the White House in 2007 and 2008, he called for closing the base, which was set up as part of President George W. Bush's response to the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Lawmakers objected and the facility remains open.

Questioned about a hunger strike by some detainees, he said, "I don't want these individuals to die," and said the Pentagon was doing what it could to manage the situation.

Obama also noted that several suspected terrorists have been tried and found guilty in U.S. federal courts, an answer to his congressional critics who maintain that detainees must be tried in special courts if the United States is to maximize its ability to prevent future attacks.

On another topic, Obama responded with slight ridicule and humor when he was asked if he still had the political power to push his agenda through Congress after an early second-term defeat on gun control legislation.

"Golly, I might just as well pack up and go home," he parried his questioner. Paraphrasing American humorist Mark Twain, he said, "Rumors of my demise may be a little exaggerated at this point." And he expressed confidence that Congress would approve sweeping immigration legislation that he is seeking.

He also renewed his call for lawmakers to replace across-the-board federal spending cuts. The administration favors a comprehensive plan to reduce deficits through targeted spending cuts and higher taxes.