The United States refused to set new “red lines” for Syria on Wednesday as claims of a horrific chemical arms strike reignited debate over its reluctance to intervene in its civil war.
Top officials faced new questions over Syria policy after rebels said President Bashar al-Assad’s forces massacred 1,300 people in an attack using chemical weapons near Damascus.
The claim returned the spotlight to Barack Obama’s administration after the president was accused earlier this year of not enforcing “red lines” he set over the use of chemical agents.
“I’m not talking about red lines. I’m not having a debate or conversation about red lines … I’m not setting red lines,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
The White House meanwhile refused to specify what, if any action Assad would face if was proven that his forces were behind the attack in which many victims apparently choked to death.
Spokesman Josh Earnest focused instead on a team of United Nations inspectors in Syria to probe previous claims of chemical attacks saying they should be allowed to examine the new alleged incident.
“Before we suggest what may or may not happen as a result of the investigation’s findings being revealed, let’s start with making sure that this investigation actually gets conducted in a manner that is credible,” he said.
A year ago, Obama said at a White House press conference that any use of Assad’s deadly chemical arsenal would cross a “red line” and would entail “enormous consequences.”
Many observers interpreted those remarks as a sign Obama would contemplate direct military action against Syrian government forces.
Then, Washington concluded in June that Assad’s forces had indeed used chemical arms, including the nerve gas sarin, in attacks that killed up to 150 people.
In response, Washington promised to significantly toughen its stance on Syria and said it would provide military support to rebels for the first time.
But it has refused to specify exactly what it is doing, as the information is classified, and much of the assistance is believed to have yet to reach selected opposition groups.
Obama’s opponents on Capitol Hill accuse him of presiding over a weak policy and of damaging his own credibility by refusing to back up infringed red lines with overt military action.
The latest reports represent another Middle Eastern headache for a White House already embroiled in controversy over Syria and struggling to frame a coherent response to a coup in Egypt.
Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs committee fired an early shot in a new Washington debate on Syria, saying if the report was credible “a red line has been crossed again.”
“The US has two options: continue to largely stand on the sidelines as the regime slaughters its own people, or tip the balance of power against a brutal dictator by degrading its ability to attack civilians.
Republican Senator John McCain, a critic of Obama’s refusal to use military force to protect civilians in Syria, weighed in on Twitter.
“No consequence for Assad using chemical weapons & crossing red line — we shouldn’t be surprised he’s using them again.”
Obama has deplored the violence which has killed more than 100,000 people in Syria, and has demanded that Assad leave power.
But he is reluctant though to embroil US forces in a new war in the Middle East, after bringing American soldiers home from Iraq and as he ends the Afghan war.
The White House also worries about the extremist tendencies of some Syrian rebel groups and fears any weapons provided by the United States could end up in the hands of jihadists.
The White House on Wednesday maintained that the stepped-up US aid to rebels did in fact amount to “consequences” for chemical arms use Obama promised.
But Earnest did admit that the US policy on Syria had fallen short.
“We have not to this point achieved our ultimate goal, which is removing Bashar al-Assad from power,” he said.
Regarding the latest reports of a chemical weapons attack, Earnest said Washington did not yet have evidence that it had happened, but was working to establish the facts.
“Today, we are formally requesting that the United Nations urgently investigate this new allegation.”
“If the Syrian government has nothing to hide and is truly committed to an impartial and credible investigation of chemical weapons use in Syria, it will facilitate the UN team’s immediate and unfettered access to this site.”
The Syrian government denied the allegations, saying they were intended to detract from the UN team’s current work.