Obama: Syria a test of international community's credibility

President says Assad's regime could continue to act 'with impunity' if no military action is taken

President Barack Obama answers a question on Syria during a press conference in Sweden.
Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama said Wednesday that the global community's integrity is at stake if no action is taken against the Syrian government, which the U.S. has accused of using chemical weapons during an Aug. 21 attack that Washington says resulted in the death of more than 1,400 people, including more than 400 children. 

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"The international community's credibility is on the line, and America and Congress' credibility is on the line, because we give lip service to these kinds of international norms," Obama said, referring to the use of chemical weapons. "How credible is the international community when it says, 'This is an international norm that has to be observed'?"

Speaking in Sweden, where he was holding a bilateral meeting with the country's prime minister ahead of Thursday's G-20 summit in Russia, Obama called for action. 

"I do think that we have to act, because if we don't, we are effectively saying that even though we may condemn it and issue a resolution and so forth and so on, somebody who is not shamed by resolutions can continue to act with impunity," said Obama, who reiterated his stance that any action would be limited in scope. 

On Saturday, Obama announced that he would seek a congressional vote before carrying out strikes in Syria. Congress has already been holding both public and closed-door hearings ahead of Sept. 9, when the legislative body reconvenes after a monthlong recess.

Speaking before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel responded to questions of whether U.S. strikes would be too limited to make an impact on Assad's weapons capablity. 

"This would be a significant strike that would in fact degrade his capability," Hagel said. He added that any action carried with it risk, while also adding that inaction carried with it risks of its own.   

Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said they expected to vote later Wednesday on the draft resolution for use of military force in Syria.  

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday that the U.S. Congress has no right to "legitimize aggression" against Syria. He warned against taking one-sided action in Syria, but also said Russia "doesn't exclude" supporting a U.N. resolution on punitive military strikes if it is proved that Damascus used poison gas on its own people. 

In an interview with The Associated Press and Russia's state Channel 1 television, Putin said Moscow has provided some components of the S-300 air-defense missile system to Syria, but has frozen further shipments.

A team of U.N. inspectors visited the suburbs of Damascus last week where the alleged attacks took place and is analyzing samples taken to determine whether chemical weapons were used.

'Perilous suggestion'

Meanwhile, British Prime Minister David Cameron said Wednesday he believed the government of President Bashar al-Assad would use chemical weapons against its own people again if the U.S. stepped back from taking military action.

When asked by opposition Labor Party lawmaker Joan Ruddock whether he would push for a cease-fire in Syria rather than a "bombing raid," Cameron told parliament that Obama had issued a clear warning to Assad on chemical weapons and was right to stick to it. 

"I would just ask her to put herself for a moment in the shoes of the president of the United States," Cameron said of Ruddock during his weekly question-and-answer session in parliament.

"He set a very clear red line, that if there was large-scale chemical weapons use something had to happen," Cameron said of Obama. "To ask the president of the United States, having set that red line, having made that warning, to step away from it -- I think that would be a very perilous suggestion to make, because in response I think you would see more chemical weapons attacks from the regime."

Last week, parliament voted down a resolution authorizing British intervention in Syria.

Labor Party leader Ed Miliband told Cameron that "last week's vote was not about Britain shirking its global responsibility, it was about preventing a rush to war."

Philip J. Victor contributed to this report, with wire services 

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