Obama warns Syria's Assad chemical weapons a 'red line'

Aug 20, 2012, 3:53 PM EDT
REUTERS/Larry Downing

By Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON, Aug 20 (Reuters) - President Barack Obamabluntly warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Monday not tocross a "red line" by using chemical or biological weapons inhis country's bloody conflict and suggested that such actionwould prompt the United States to consider a military response.

Pointing out that he had refrained "at this point" fromordering U.S. military engagement in Syria, Obama said thatthere would be "enormous consequences" if Assad failed tosafeguard his weapons of mass destruction.

It was Obama's strongest language to date on the issue, andhe warned Syria not only against using its unconventionalweapons, but against moving them in a threatening fashion.

"We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also toother players on the ground, that a red line for us is we startseeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or beingutilized," Obama said. "That would change my calculus."

"We cannot have a situation where chemical or biologicalweapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people," Obamatold an impromptu White House news conference. He acknowledgedhe was not "absolutely confident" the stockpile was secure.

Obama said the issue was of concern not only to Washingtonbut also to its close allies in the region, including Israel.

Seeking re-election in November, Obama has been reluctant toget the United States involved in another war in the MiddleEast, even refusing to arm rebels fighting a 17-month-olduprising against Assad.

Syria last month acknowledged for the first time that it hadchemical and biological weapons and said it could use them ifforeign countries intervene -- a threat that drew strongwarnings from Washington and its allies.

Western countries and Israel have expressed fears chemicalweapons could fall into the hands of militant groups as Assad'sauthority erodes.

Israel has said that if Syrian-backed Hezbollah guerrillasused the situation to take control of the weapons, it would "actimmediately and with utmost force."

"We're monitoring that situation very carefully. We have puttogether a range of contingency plans," Obama said when askedwhether he envisioned the possibility of using U.S. forces atleast to safeguard Syria's chemical arsenal.

The Global Security website, which collects publishedintelligence reports and other data, says there are foursuspected chemical weapons sites in Syria: north of Damascus,near Homs, in Hama and near the Mediterranean port of Latakia.Weapons it produces include the nerve agents VX, sarin andtabun, it said, without citing its sources.

Obama also used the opportunity to renew his call for Assadto step down.

"The international community has sent a clear message thatrather than drag his country into civil war, he should move inthe direction of a political transition," Obama said. "But atthis point, the likelihood of a soft landing seems prettydistant."

Obama said the United States had already provided $82million in humanitarian assistance for Syria refugees and "we'llprobably end up doing a little bit more" to keep the situationfrom destabilizing Syria's neighbors.