President Barack Obama on Thursday faced growing calls at home and abroad for forceful action against the Syrian government over accusations that it carried out a massive deadly chemical weapons attack.
While the White House said it was “appalled” by reports of hundreds of people gassed near Damascus on Wednesday, it made clear that any U.S. response must await confirmation of the attack and again demanded that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad give U.N. inspectors immediate access to the sites of the alleged attacks.
The Obama administration's cautious response underscored a reluctance by Washington to intervene in Syria since the country's civil war erupted 2-1/2 years ago.
But if allegations of a large-scale chemical attack are verified, Obama will surely face heavy pressure to act more aggressively, possibly even with military force, in response to repeated violations of U.S. “red lines.”
The consensus in Washington and allied capitals is that a concerted international response can only succeed if the United States takes the lead. But Obama has shown no appetite for intervention, mindful of opinion polls showing most Americans opposed to a new military entanglements in the Muslim world.
Despite that, pressure was mounting as horrific photos and videos of alleged chemical weapons victims spread across the Internet.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said world powers must respond with force if allegations that Syria's government was responsible for the deadliest chemical attack on civilians in a quarter-century prove true. But even Fabius stressed there was no question of sending in troops on the ground.
Britain, too, said no option should be ruled out “that might save innocent lives in Syria.” And Turkey said “all red lines” had been crossed in Syria and criticized international inaction.
Israel said it believed Syrian forces had used chemical weapons in the killing of hundreds of people in the rebel-held suburbs of Damascus, and it accused the world of turning a blind eye to such attacks.
In Washington, the Syrian opposition's claims of a horrific gas attack by Assad's loyalists sparked new calls for action from Capitol Hill.
The latest Syria controversy has added to a growing perception of foreign policy troubles for Obama early in his second term. He is facing criticism for his inability to influence Egyptian generals in that country's political crisis and for failing to persuade Russia to extradite fugitive former spy agency contractor Edward Snowden.
Pressing ahead on Thursday with a two-day bus tour in the Northeast to promote his economic agenda, Obama made no mention of Syria in his first public appearance.
“The fact that we are doing this bus tour is an indication that the president has his priorities straight while he continues to monitor what is an increasingly tragic situation in Syria,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.
McCain calls for 'decisive action'
Republican Senator John McCain said the “credible reports” from Syria suggesting that Assad's forces had escalated their use of chemical weapons “should shock our collective conscience.”
McCain, one of the most influential voices in Congress on foreign policy matters and a harsh critic of Obama's Syria policy, said U.S. inaction would encourage other governments to use harsh measures against their own people.
“It is long past time for the United States and our friends and allies to respond to Assad's continuing mass atrocities in Syria with decisive actions, including limited military strikes to degrade Assad's air power and ballistic missile capabilities,” he said in a statement.
Both Democratic and Republican congressional aides expressed frustration with what they deem the Obama administration's failure to communicate with members of the Senate and House of Representatives on the crisis in Syria, except for members of the intelligence committees.
Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he was “shocked and deeply concerned” about the reported chemical weapons attack and the United Nations should investigate.
But he stopped short of calling for military action.
The top U.S. military officer, Joint Chiefs chairman General Martin Dempsey, canceled a planned press briefing on security issues on Thursday. Dempsey, in letters to U.S. lawmakers, has made clear the armed forces judge that intervention in Syria would be costly and have an uncertain outcome.
Many members of Congress also have expressed deep concern about U.S. involvement in the Syrian crisis, worried that weapons sent to the rebels fighting to oust Assad could end up in the hands of militants who would use them against the United States and its allies.
Syrian authorities have called allegations against their forces “illogical and fabricated,” pointing to the timing of the attack and their previous assertions that, if they possessed chemical weapons, they would never use them against Syrians.
Key Assad ally Moscow pointed the finger at a “provocation” by rebels keen to draw in Western military assistance.
The Obama administration has joined with other countries in demanding that Assad allow a U.N. chemical weapons team already on the ground in Syria to do its work.
White House spokesman Earnest said the way for the Syrian government to prove its denials is “to allow the U.N. team full access to the site to try to get to the bottom of what happened.”
Unless U.N. inspectors are able to conduct an on-site investigation, it could take some time for U.S. officials to sift through photographs, video and intelligence to determine whether the Syrian opposition's reports are credible.
An earlier U.S. investigation of alleged Syrian chemical weapons use took months to conclude that Assad's forces had used small amounts of sarin gas in attacks during the previous year.
Activists wear gas masks as they look for dead bodies and collect samples to check for chemical weapon use in Zamalka, Damascus, August 22, 2013.
An activist wearing a gas mask stands next to a dead dog as he looks for bodies to collect samples to check for chemical weapon use, in Zamalka, Damascus, August 22, 2013.
Syrian activists inspect the bodies of people they say were killed by toxic gas near Damascus, August 21, 2013.
A man sits in a hospital near two children who activists say were affected by toxic gas near Damascus, August 21, 2013.
People, affected by what activists say is toxic gas, are treated at a hospital in the Duma neighborhood of Damascus August 21, 2013.
A youth, affected by what activists say is toxic gas, is treated at a hospital near Damascus, August 21, 2013.
A Syrian military soldier holds his Ak-47 with a sticker of Syrian President Bashar Assad and Arabic that reads, "Syria is fine," as he stands guard at a check point on Baghdad street, in Damascus, August 21, 2013.
A Syrian military soldier checks the trunk of a car at a check point on Baghdad street, in Damascus, August 21, 2013.