WASHINGTON — The Obama administration searched for answers Wednesday about a reported chemical weapons attack in Syria that would mark the most flagrant violation yet of the U.S. “red line” for potential military action. But the possibility of intervention seemed ever smaller after America’s top general offered a starkly pessimistic assessment of options.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a letter this week to a congressman that the administration is opposed to even limited action in Syria because it believes rebels fighting the Assad government wouldn’t support American interests if they seized power.
Dempsey said 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 said.
On Wednesday, Syrian anti-Assad activists accused the government of carrying out a toxic gas attack in the eastern suburbs of Damascus, killing at least 100 people including children. The claims coincided with a visit by a U.N. chemical weapons team to three previous sites of alleged attacks. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government rejected the accusations, and U.S. officials said they were seeking details of what happened.
For the United States, the death toll and painful images again put a spotlight on President Barack Obama’s pledge almost exactly a year ago to respond forcefully to any chemical weapons use by the Assad government. Since then, the administration has said it has confirmed that Syrian forces have committed such attacks, and the U.S. has ordered a lethal aid package of small arms to be sent to some rebel groups, though it’s unclear what if any weapons have been delivered.
Yet up to now, Obama has refused all options of direct U.S. military intervention in a civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people and displaced millions.
“The United States is deeply concerned by reports that hundreds of Syrian civilians have been killed in an attack by Syrian government forces, including by the use of chemical weapons,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Wednesday.
“We are working urgently to gather additional information,” Earnest said, adding that Washington has asked for U.N. investigators to be granted access to the area of the fighting. He made no mention of possible consequences if chemical weapons use is confirmed.
Obama has stated that he doesn’t want to be drawn into another Mideast conflict after a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and polling suggests he has the public’s support on that.