Obama administration officials clash over Syria response

Alleged attack in Syria and ongoing violence in Egypt put Obama and advisers at odds

Pentagon leaders, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have argued for moderation in the U.S. response.
Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Persistent violence in Syria and Egypt has sharply divided senior advisers in the Obama administration over a moral dilemma: How far should the U.S. go to halt bloodshed when its actions could lead to long-term involvement in a protracted sectarian war in Syria or damage relations with Egypt.  

In Syria, new allegations of deadly chemical weapons attacks on civilians by President Bashar al-Assad's regime have divided U.S. leaders on an appropriate response. Hundreds of people were reportedly killed in the attack.

President Barack Obama said in a Friday interview with CNN that the reported attack "is clearly a big event, of grave concern," but that the U.S. must tread cautiously, even as his aides debated over the options for future military action against the Syrian government.

In his first public comments since Wednesday's reported attack in the Damascus suburbs, Obama called the incident "very troublesome" but made clear he was in no rush to get war-weary Americans entangled in another Middle East conflict. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said U.S. intelligence agencies have not yet been able to "conclusively determine chemical weapons use."

The U.N. and Syria's closest ally, Russia, have also called on the Syrian government to allow investigators onto the site of the alleged attack.

When pressed about his comment a year ago that chemical weapons use in Syria would be a "red line," President Obama expressed caution.

"If the U.S. goes in and attacks another country without a U.N. mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it, do we have the coalition to make it work," Obama said.

Egypt's turmoil

Another source of contention in the Obama administration has been the deadly protests that have raged across Egypt. Hundreds have died in the country during demonstrations brought on by the military coup which overthrew former President Mohamed Morsi -- causing Obama to mull suspending military aid.

Pentagon leaders, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have argued for moderation in the U.S. response.

They say that cutting off aid to Egypt would threaten key national security agreements and could affect the peace between Egypt and Israel. They suggest that such action would cost the U.S. its leverage and even risk losing access to the Suez Canal and permission for military flights over Egypt.

Others in the administration have countered that the U.S. should take more decisive action to curtail the violence in Egypt as well as the sectarian war in Syria.

So far, the White House has taken only incremental steps. In that vein, it's expected to announce in the coming days the suspension of another major weapons shipment to Egypt.

The next military weapons shipments for Egypt are scheduled for next month -- including 10 Apache helicopters at a cost of about $500 million. Also scheduled for delivery are a number of M1A1 tank kits, including machine guns and other equipment used with the tanks, as well as some used missiles.

The missiles, which have been moved and handled but not yet fired, could be used for spare parts by the Egyptian military or they could be refurbished for launching.

The lack of a unified position -- both within the Obama administration and in Congress -- may be giving Obama time and space for his cautious approach, but that has not stopped calls for stronger pressure on Egypt's military.

Obama has said that cutting off aid to Egypt "may not reverse what the interim government does." He said the U.S. must be "very careful" about being seen as aiding and abetting actions that run contrary to the country's values.

World calls for action

To express displeasure about the Egyptian crackdown on pro-Morsi demonstrators, the U.S. suspended the delivery of four F-16 fighter jets to Egypt and canceled biennial U.S.-Egyptian military exercises planned for next month.

Obama has said that the United States' long-term cooperation with Egypt "cannot continue as usual." However, the U.S. military has continued shipments of thousands of spare parts for American weapons systems used by the Egyptian forces. Plans continue for sending armored bulldozers for border security, radars and missiles in the coming months.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who is on vacation, attended via video teleconference and made a flurry of telephone calls to world leaders to discuss the unrelenting bloodshed in Syria.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on Tuesday raised the possibility of the international community using force.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said at a news conference in Berlin, "Several red lines have been crossed -- if sanctions are not imposed immediately, then we will lose our power to deter."

Kerry has also urged other nations to help gather information about the reports of chemical weapons attacks. And the Obama administration is expected to hold more meetings on the matter in coming days.

Republican Sen. John McCain, a leading advocate of a more aggressive U.S. response to the events in Syria, said on CNN that if Assad believes there will be no retaliation, Assad would see that "the word of the president of the United States can no longer be taken seriously."

Top military leaders have cautioned against even limited action in Syria. Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs chairman, said in a letter this week to a congressman that the U.S. military is clearly capable of taking out Assad's air force and shifting the balance of the war toward the armed opposition.

But such an approach would plunge the U.S. into the war without offering any strategy for ending what has become a sectarian fight, he added.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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