WHITE HOUSE — President Barack Obama on Monday again called for Syria's President Bashar al-Assad to step down, saying that any movement or use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would change America's stance toward Syria.
The president's comments came during a surprise appearance in the White House briefing room, prompted in part by complaints by the media that he has avoided holding a regular news conference.
Asked about Syria, Obama said that so far President Assad has not gotten the message that he has lost legitimacy and needs to step down.
"The international community has sent a clear message that rather than drag his country into a civil war, he should move in the direction of a political transition," said President Obama. "But at this point, the likelihood of a soft landing [an easy Assad departure] seems pretty distant."
Obama referred to humanitarian and other assistance the United States and international partners have provided to Syria's opposition, saying this will continue, especially help to refugees fleeing the fighting.
He said assistance also includes consultations with the opposition about how a political transition might occur, including consideration of principles that should be upheld in respecting minority and human rights in Syria.
Obama said he has not ordered "military engagement" in Syria. But he said the United States and its allies are watching the situation closely, adding that any use or movement of Syrian government chemical weapons would change his "calculus."
"We have put together a range of contingency plans," said Obama. "We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that is a red line [serious concern] for us and 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."
Obama said the United States "cannot have a situation where chemical weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people," adding that Washington has made its point about this red line "very clear" to the Assad government and "other players on the ground."
The president said U.S. allies in the region, including Israel, are also concerned about chemical and biological weapons in Syria.
Obama also commented on the latest killings of U.S. and NATO troops by members of Afghanistan's security forces. So far this year, at least 39 coalition personnel have been killed in such attacks.
Obama said he is "deeply concerned" and that he would be "reaching out" to Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai about the problem. He said he had also spoken with U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Army General Martin Dempsey, who was in Afghanistan for meetings with NATO and Afghan officials.