Obama: Syria Must Be “Held Account,” Undecided on Strikes

The president believes a “shot across the bow” can deter the Syrian regime from deploying chemical weapons.

President Barack Obama is interviewed by PBS' NewsHour in the White House in Washington DC, August 28

President Barack Obama insisted on Wednesday that he hadn’t decided yet whether to strike Syria even if its alleged use of chemical weapons last week crossed the “red line” he laid out a year ago.

In an interview with PBS’ NewsHour, the president said that he had “no interest” in an open ended conflict in Syria. “But we do have to make sure that when countries break international norms on weapons like chemical weapons that could threaten us, they’re held account,” he added.

A year ago, Obama warned that if chemical weapons were used in Syria, “That would change my calculus.” Last week, opposition activists in the country accused the regime of President Bashar Assad of gassing hundreds of civilians in a suburb of the capital Damascus. Amateur videos purporting to show victims of the attack could not be independently verified but Obama said he had no doubt Assad’s forces were responsible. “We do not believe the opposition possessed chemical weapons of that sort,” he told PBS.

The timing of the attack — less than three days after United Nations inspectors arrived in Syria to investigate previous allegations of chemical weapons use — raised doubts about who had used the gas. Moreover, as the regime’s army, bolstered by fighters from the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, seems to have managed to repel the rebels from most cities in the west of the country, Assad might not have had an imperative to deploy chemical weapons — especially when he knew doing so could trigger an international response.

Plans for a military strike seem underway. Other Western leaders, including Britain’s prime minister David Cameron and French president François Hollande, have condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The reformer recalled Parliament to discuss a response on Thursday. Hollande vowed on Tuesday that his country was ready to punish those responsible for the gas attack, appealing to the world’s “responsibility to protect” civilians in Syria where tens of thousands have died since a civil war broke out more than two years ago.

While it is unclear what a military strike against Syria is meant to accomplish — Obama’s spokesman said regime change was not the objective while the president himself rejected “direct military engagement” which he said “would not help the situation on the ground” — the use of chemical weapons affected American national interests, Obama said.

This is a very volatile country in a very volatile region. We’ve got allies bordering Syria. Turkey is a NATO ally. Jordan, a close friend that we work with a lot. Israel is very close by. We’ve got bases throughout the region. We cannot see a breach of the nonproliferation norm that allows potentially chemical weapons to fall into the hands of all kinds of folks.

Suggesting that a “tailored, limited” operation might suffice to deter Assad from deploying chemical weapons again, the president said, “If we are saying in a clear and decisive but very limited way, we send a shot across the bow saying, ‘Stop doing this,’ this can have a positive impact on our national security over the long term.”