WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has declared the threat of chemical or biological warfare in Syria a "red line" for the United States, outlining for the first time the point at which his administration could feel forced to intervene militarily in the Arab country's increasingly messy conflict.
Speaking to reporters Monday at the White House, Obama warned about the use or deployment of such weapons of mass destruction and said they risked widening a civil war that already has dragged on for 1½ years and killed some 20,000 people, according to activists. It is widely thought that Syria possesses extensive chemical and biological weapon stockpiles, and it has threatened to use them if the country comes under foreign attack.
"That's an issue that doesn't just concern Syria. It concerns our close allies in the region, including Israel. It concerns us," Obama said, underscoring that the U.S. wouldn't accept the threat of weapons of mass destruction from Syrian President Bashar Assad's government, rebels fighting the government, or militant groups aiding either side. "We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people."
The president noted that he hasn't ordered any armed U.S. intervention yet, but said: "We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region, that that's a red line for us, and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front, or the use of chemical weapons. That would change my calculations significantly."
The U.S. has opposed military involvement in Syria's war, partly out of fear that intervention would further militarize the conflict and worsen chances of a political solution. Continued deadlock at the United Nations means there is no clear mandate for the U.S. to help patrol Syrian airspace to stop airstrikes on rebel outposts, as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and others have urged. And administration officials insist they know too little about much of Syria's opposition to start providing them weapons.
In issuing its threat last month, Syria acknowledged for the first time that it has what is thought to be among the biggest chemical and biological weapons programs in the world. Assad's military regime is believed to have mustard gas like the type used by Saddam Hussein against Iran and Iraq's Kurdish minority in the 1980s, as well as nerve agents such as tabun, sarin and VX that can be delivered in missiles, bombs, rockets, artillery shells or other large munitions.
Obama said U.S. officials were monitoring the situation "very carefully," and have assembled a range of contingency plans.
His declaration of the red line comes two days before the top U.S. diplomat for the Mideast, Beth Jones, leads an interagency delegation to Turkey to begin work on plans for worst-case scenarios in Syria, paramount among them a chemical or biological weapons attack on regime opponents.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said representatives of the Defense Department and the U.S. intelligence community would be represented in the delegation. The U.S. and its NATO ally will sit down "together to share operational picture, to talk about the effectiveness of what we're doing now and about what more we can do," she said.
Israel is among the most concerned. It is worried that as Assad's grip on power loosens, he could transfer weapons to groups such as Hezbollah or Hamas that Syria has supported in the past. Israel and the U.S. also worry that if rebels seize chemical or biological agents, they could fall into the hands of al-Qaida-linked fighters or other extremist elements now fighting for the opposition.
The U.S. so far has limited its aid to the Syrian rebels to humanitarian relief and communications equipment while trying to help the opposition come up with a blueprint for a post-Assad future, which the U.S. says is only a question of time. The approach aims to avoid a repeat of the post-Saddam chaos in Iraq by preventing sectarian strife and ensuring that the state continues to supply water, electricity and other basic services. Officials have called this regime change with a "soft landing."
Obama reiterated his call for Assad to step down, while offering a realistic assessment of the chances for a peaceful solution.
"So far he hasn't gotten the message, and instead has doubled down in violence on his own people," the president said. "The international community has sent a clear message that rather than drag his country into civil war, he should move in the direction of a political transition. But at this point, the likelihood of a soft landing seems pretty distant."