The president’s remarks were surprisingly strong in tone and suggested that if Washington finds evidence that such weapons had been used he would hold the Syrian government responsible.
On more than one occasion Mr. Obama has said that the deployment of chemical weapons in the two-year-old Syrian conflict would be a “red line” for the United States, which supports the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad but has not provided military aid to the rebels fighting him. Mr. Assad’s military is known to have large stockpiles of chemical arms.
Mr. Obama’s remarks, at a news conference in Jerusalem with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, were his first public reaction to the reports on Tuesday that chemical weapons had been used in Syria. Both sides in the conflict have accused the other of responsibility but there has been no independent evidence that the weapons were used.
“We intend to investigate thoroughly exactly what happened,” Mr. Obama said in response to a question. “I’ve instructed my teams to find out precisely what happened, what we can document, what we can prove.”
Mr. Obama said “I’ve instructed my teams to find out precisely whether this red line was crossed.”
However, Mr. Obama continued, even though he does not have all the facts, “We know the Syrian government has the capacity to carry out chemical attacks” and that he was “deeply skeptical of any claim that it was the opposition that used chemical weapons.”
Mr. Obama spoke after both the Syrian opposition and the government
escalated their mutual accusations of chemical weapons use, with both sides demanding an international investigation. But there was no new evidence to suggest that such weapons, which are internationally banned, had actually been used.
The National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the umbrella political group that wants to topple President Assad, said in a statement that it “condemns these attacks and holds the Assad regime fully responsible for shedding Syrian blood.” The group said the attacks killed at least 19 civilians and left 69 others short of breath, with some in critical condition.
In a statement from its Cairo headquarters, the coalition accused government forces of carrying out two chemical weapons attacks on Tuesday — one in the Khan al-Assal area of northern Aleppo Province, as originally asserted, and a second strike in the Ataybah area of suburban Damascus.
“The coalition demands a full international investigation,” the statement said. “All evidence now indicates that the Assad regime is using these weapons against its own people.”
At the United Nations, the Syrian ambassador, Bashar Jaafari, told reporters that his government had also requested an official inquiry to corroborate its claims that insurgents — not government forces — had used the weapons. Mr. Jaafari said he had delivered a letter to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s office seeking a “specialized, independent and neutral technical mission to investigate the use by the terrorist groups operating in Syria of chemical weapons yesterday against civilians.”
Mr. Ban’s spokesman, Martin Nesirky, said he had first learned of the Syrian government’s request from Mr. Jaafari’s remarks. “We will have more to say once we have received and studied any formal request,” Mr. Nesirky told reporters.
Mr. Nesirky also repeated Mr. Ban’s reaction to the first allegations of chemical weapons use on Tuesday, saying, “The secretary general remains convinced that the use of chemical weapons by any party under any circumstances would constitute an outrageous crime.”
Israeli officials, who have repeatedly expressed concern about chemical weapons in neighboring Syria, suggested in their most recent comments that such arms were used on Tuesday. Yuval Steinitz, the newly appointed minister of intelligence and strategic affairs, told Israel’s Army Radio on Wednesday, “It’s apparently clear that chemical weapons have been used against civilians by the rebels or by the government.” But he provided no specific information to corroborate the claim.
American intelligence officials have been deeply skeptical that chemical weapons were used in the attacks but have not ruled out that possibility. The Obama administration has warned that the use of such weapons in Syria would constitute a “red line” that could result in an American military response.
The chemical weapons issue came up again on Wednesday during an appearance by the American ambassador to Syria, Robert S. Ford, at a Congressional hearing in Washington. “So far we have no evidence to substantiate the reports that chemical weapons were used yesterday,” Mr. Ford said during testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. But he also emphasized that the United States was still investigating the episode.
“We take these reports and these possibilities very seriously, and we are using all of our available means to determine what happened,” he said.
Obama Says US Investigating if Chemical Weapons Were Used in Syria – New York Times
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