US officials have confirmed that President Obama’s controversial “red line” on chemical weapons in Syria has been crossed. But that doesn’t mean Americans think he should do anything about it.
If anything, public attitudes toward a US military response in the face of new evidence that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons against its own people have hardened, according to a new Reuters/Ipsos poll.
About 60 percent of Americans surveyed said the United States should not intervene in Syria's civil war, while just 9 percent thought Mr. Obama should act, Reuters reported.
That majority opposition holds even in the face of evidence that chemical weapons have been used in Syria, the poll finds.
“Taken together, the polls suggest that so far, the growing crisis in Syria, and the emotionally wrenching pictures from an alleged chemical attack in a Damascus suburb this week, may actually be hardening many Americans' resolve not to get involved in another conflict in the Middle East,” Reuters reports. “The results – and Reuters/Ipsos polling on the use-of-chemicals question since early June – suggest that if Obama decides to undertake military action against Assad's regime, he will do so in the face of steady opposition from an American public wary after more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
But the new poll, and previous surveys by other news organizations showing similar antiwar sentiments, haven’t let Obama off the political hook on Syria – particularly since, as the Hill magazine put it Sunday, the president has “boxed himself in on the issue” with his “red line” comment.
(Asked in August of last year about reports that Syria may be preparing to use chemical weapons against rebels, Obama said: "We have been very clear to the [Assad] regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.")
Speaking to The Associated Press, a senior administration official said Sunday there is "very little doubt" that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime against civilians in an incident that killed at least 100 people last week.
The official said the US intelligence community based its assessment given to the White House on "the reported number of victims, reported symptoms of those who were killed or injured," and witness accounts, according to the AP. The official said the White House believes the Syrian government is continuing to bar a United Nations investigative team immediate access to the site of a reported Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs, in order to give the evidence of the attack time to degrade.
On the TV news shows Sunday, sabers were rattling across party lines with the new evidence that Obama’s “calculation” likely had been changed with hundreds of deaths in Syria attributed to “a whole bunch of chemical weapons,” as he put it last year.
Appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee called for the US to respond in a “surgical and proportional way, something that gets their attention.” Democrat Rep. Eliot Engel of New York said the US must respond “quickly,” together with NATO allies, possibly using cruise missile strikes, as the US and NATO did in Libya when it ousted Muammar Qaddafi.
Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona has been most vociferous in calling for US military action in Syria, especially as Obama continues to resist the idea of anything unilateral.
In a statement Sunday morning, Senator McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina called for the US to "take limited military actions in Syria” in the face of what “clearly constitutes the commission of a war crime.”
“Now is the time for decisive actions,” the statement says. “The United States must rally our friends and allies to take limited military actions in Syria that can change the balance of power on the ground and create conditions for a negotiated end to the conflict and an end to Assad's rule. Using stand-off weapons, without boots on the ground, and at minimal risk to our men and women in uniform, we can significantly degrade Assad's air power and ballistic missile capabilities and help to establish and defend safe areas on the ground.”
“In addition,” McCain and Senator Graham assert, “we must begin a large-scale effort to train and equip moderate, vetted elements of the Syrian opposition with the game-changing weapons they need to shift the military balance against Assad's forces.”
There is hesitancy in Obama’s current position, particularly as it relates to any perception that the US might go it alone.
"If the US goes in and attacks another country without a UN mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it – do we have the coalition to make it work?" Obama said in a CNN interview Friday. "Those are considerations that we have to take into account."
With Syrian ally Russia a permanent member of the UN Security Council, getting a UN mandate for military action in Syria might be problematic.