STOCKHOLM — President Obama declared Wednesday that the confrontation with Syria over chemical weapons was not a personal test for him but for Congress, the United States, and the world as he worked to strengthen support at home and abroad for a punitive strike.
Opening a three-day trip overseas at a delicate moment for his presidency, Obama challenged lawmakers and allies to stand behind his plans for a cruise missile attack on the government of President Bashar Assad in retaliation for what the Obama administration has concluded was a chemical attack that killed 1,400 people in the suburbs of the Syrian capital, Damascus, last month.
“I didn’t set a red line,” Obama said during a news conference in Stockholm. “The world set a red line.”
Obama laid blame for the Aug. 21 attack directly on Assad, whose government is known to have enormous stockpiles of banned chemical munitions including sarin gas, a nerve agent that US intelligence has said was deployed in a rebel-held part of the Damascus suburbs.
US intelligence has not disclosed any evidence that Assad ordered the use of sarin, but the White House has said he remains responsible as the leader of the country and its military. Obama’s language Wednesday appeared to go a little further in singling out Assad.
“We believe very strongly with high confidence that in fact chemical weapons were used and that Mr. Assad was the source,” the president said.
Obama’s comments here about not being the one who set a red line — a year after using the phrase — and Congress’ credibility being at stake rather than his own irritated some Republicans who are allies on the vote just hours after they agreed to support him.
To them, the comments made it look as if he were disclaiming responsibility.
“If he chooses to wash his hands of this, you can surely imagine how a vote will turn out,” said a Republican leadership aide who insisted on anonymity to avoid a more overt rupture with the White House.
By saying it was the world’s red line, rather than his own, Obama was citing longstanding international norms against the use of chemical weapons. But more broadly, like his decision to seek congressional votes in the first place, he was trying to break out of his isolation in terms of military action against Syria.
Not only has Russia blocked any UN action, but even America’s strongest ally, Britain, has opted against participating. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 59 percent of Americans oppose the proposed missile strike.
Standing at Obama’s side, Sweden’s prime minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, urged waiting for a report from UN inspectors, who have sent samples from the scene of the attack to a Swedish laboratory, and said he preferred any action be supported by the Security Council.
“But I also understand the potential consequences of letting a violation like this go unanswered,” Reinfeldt said, in a nod to Obama’s position.
US officials have dismissed the UN investigation because it is charged only with determining whether there was a chemical attack, which Washington considers undisputed, not the more contentious question of who was responsible. But Obama acknowledged that the mistaken intelligence about weapons of mass destruction before the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 haunts his current efforts.
“I’m very mindful that around the world and here in Europe in particular there are memories of Iraq and weapons of mass destruction accusations and people being concerned about how accurate this information is,” Obama said. “Keep in mind, I’m somebody who opposed the war in Iraq and am not interested in repeating mistakes basing decisions on false intelligence. But having done a thoroughgoing evaluation of the information that is available, I can say with high confidence that chemical weapons were used.”
More so than Sweden, Russia has been unremittingly hostile to the suggestion of a retaliatory strike against Syria. President Vladimir Putin can use Russia’s veto to block UN Security Council action and has scoffed at the notion that the Syrian government was responsible for the chemical attack, calling it “utter nonsense” and suggesting that it was a provocation by rebels.