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President accuses Assad regime of a gas attack that requires 'international consequences'
August 28, 20137:04PM ETUpdated 10:15PM ET
President Barack Obama is certain that a chemical-weapons attack by the regime of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad caused the deaths of hundreds of civilians on the outskirts of Damascus last week, and warned that "international consequences" were required for such an act. But he also gave strong signals that any military action he might take as a result would be limited in scope, its purpose being to warn the Syrian regime "that it better not do it again."
In an interview with "PBS NewsHour" that aired Wednesday evening, Obama emphasized that he has not yet made a decision on military action in Syria, but made it absolutely clear who he believes is responsible.
"We have looked at all the evidence and we do not believe the opposition possessed nuclear weapons on – or chemical weapons of that sort," Obama said. "We do not believe, given the delivery systems using rockets, that the opposition could have carried out these attacks. We have concluded that the Syrian government in fact carried these out, and if so, then there need to be international consequences."
Obama's interview coincided with efforts by Britain to win U.N. Security Council authorization for military intervention to protect Syrian civilians -- an effort that appeared unlikely to avoid the Russian and Chinese vetoes that stopped three previous, less muscular resolutions.
Even as it grapples with how to respond forcefully but not too forcefully to last week's events in Syria, the Administration remains unsure of whether a chemical-weapons attack was ordered from the top of the Assad regime, Foreign Policy magazine has reported. Still, it is holding President Assad responsible for what it believes are the actions of his armed forces. U.N. inspectors continue to probe the incident, and Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Wednesday they'd need at least another four days to finish gathering evidence, and more time to analyze it.
Even if the administration has no doubt that Assad's forces launched a chemical-weapons attack against civilians last week, it remains leery of being drawn into action to shape the outcome of Syria's civil war, but added that when "countries break international norms on weapons, like chemical weapons, that can threaten us, that they are held accountable."
Obama, at the same time, appears inclined to limit the impact of any military action, as suggested by his description of it as a "shot across the bow" -- an 18th century nautical term for a warning shot that does no harm but underscores a demand for compliance.
"If, in fact, we can take limited, tailored approaches, not getting drawn into a long conflict, not a repetition of, you know, Iraq, which I know a lot of people are worried about," Obama said, "but if we are saying in a clear and decisive but very limited way, we send a shot across the bow saying, stop doing this, that can have a positive impact on our national security over the long term, and may have a positive impact in the sense that chemical weapons are not used again on innocent civilians."
When pressed about the strategic logic behind strikes that the president himself conceded its limits: "I have not made a decision, but I think it's important that if, in fact, we make a choice to have repercussions for the use of chemical weapons, then the Assad regime, which is involved in a civil war, trying to protect itself, will have received a pretty strong signal, that in fact, it better not do it again. And that doesn't solve all the problems inside of Syria, and, you know, it doesn't, obviously end the death of innocent civilians inside of Syria."
Whether or not the U.S. and its allies take military action in the coming days or weeks, Obama made clear that such action would not be designed to bring an end to a civil war that has already claimed more than 100,000 lives. Its primary purpose would be to see that no more are killed by poison gas.