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Chemical weapons in Syria? Why Obama still needs convincing

updated 6:07 AM EDT, Fri May 3, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • U.S. President Barack Obama said the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a "red line."
  • American officials now say there is evidence the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons.
  • But Obama says he needs "the facts" before taking action

(CNN) -- Two years into the civil war that has become Syria's nightmare, U.S. President Barack Obama is still reluctant to commit himself to ending the carnage or even enforce his own warning about chemical weapons.

"We've organized the international community, we are the largest humanitarian donor, we have worked to strengthen the opposition," he said this week. "This is not a situation which we've been simply bystanders to what's been happening."

Officially, the U.S. has offered a range of "non-lethal" aid to Syria's rebels. The fuller picture is more complicated and murky.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar, both U.S. allies, are widely reported to be airlifting plane-loads of weapons with American assistance. The rebels have told CNN that the U.S. has also organized weapons training in Jordan. Washington says the U.S. military is not involved.

But many Syrians and Americans are frustrated that even after the deaths of about 70,000 people in the uprising against Bashar al-Assad, the U.S. has not intervened more decisively.

In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war: In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war:
Syrian civil war in photos
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Syrian civil war in photos Syrian civil war in photos
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Obama's own words suggested that he might, when he warned in August that the use or transport of chemical weapons would be a "red line."

READ: Exclusive: Syrian minister blames rebels for chemical weapons

U.S. officials now say there is evidence that chemical weapons have been used. The White House told lawmakers in a letter that intelligence analysts have concluded "with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent Sarin."

Obama says that level of confidence isn't enough.

"When I am making decisions about American national security and the potential for taking additional action in response to chemical weapons use, I have to make sure I have the facts."

The president may be setting an impossible standard. Getting "the facts" from a war zone in a hostile sovereign state hasn't been easy. The United Nations has been stymied in its efforts to launch an independent investigation.

Senator John McCain, a prominent Republican voice on military issues ran against Obama for the presidency in 2008, has been pushing for a stronger response and calls Obama's position "a disappointment, but not a surprise."

"The president has not wanted to engage in Syria in any way, any meaningful way, for a couple of years," McCain said.

It's not just the president. America was at war in Iraq for nearly nine years and still has 66,000 troops in Afghanistan more than a decade after its war there began.

Americans have no appetite for more overseas campaigns. A new New York Times/CBS News poll found that 62 percent of respondents say Washington has no responsibility for the fighting in Syria. Only 24 percent feel Washington does have an obligation to intervene. It's hardly a fringe group but not enough to make any leader confident about intervening in a distant conflict.

There is no obvious reason to doubt that the president, like many Americans, is appalled by the bloodshed in Syria. There is also no obvious reason to expect that he will do anything more, any time soon.

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