White House denies Obama ad-libbed Syria ‘red line’ on chemical weapons

Did President Barack Obama really shock senior aides in August 2012 when he warned Syria publicly that using chemical weapons would cross a "red line"? No, the White House said Monday, rejecting a New York Times report.

"The president's use of the term 'red line' was deliberate and was based on U.S. policy," press secretary Jay Carney told reporters at his daily briefing.

Carney also dismissed claims from a U.N. investigator that Syria's rebels, not President Bashar Assad's forces, used chemical weapons. "We find it incredible, not credible, that the opposition has used chemical weapons," he said. "We think that any use of chemical weapons in Syria is almost certain to have been done by the Assad regime."

His comments came after The New York Times, citing anonymous Obama advisers, had reported Saturday that the president's warning was "unscripted," and "went further than many aides realized he would." It also noted that advisers felt "surprise" and "wondered where the 'red line' came from." The daily cited one aide as saying that "Mr. Obama was thinking of a chemical attack that would cause mass fatalities, not relatively small-scale episodes like those now being investigated, except the 'nuance got completely dropped.'"

The Times report came with Obama under heavy fire for drawing a "red line"—Syrian strongman Assad's use of chemical weapons against rebels fighting to oust him—but seemingly not responding now that the U.S. intelligence community has concluded that the regime has likely done so.

"What the president made clear is that it was a red line, and that it was unacceptable, and that it would change his calculus," Carney said. "What he never did—and it is simplistic to do so—is to say that 'if X happens, Y will happen.' He has never said what reaction he would take."

Some Republicans have charged that that's precisely the problem, that drawing a "red line" without specific consequences dents America's credibility.

Obama is "looking at a range of options, and he is not removing any option from the table" if it is conclusively proven that Assad's regime used chemical weapons, Carney said.

The press secretary also defended Israel's weekend air strikes in Syrian territory, saying, "It is certainly within their right to take action to protect themselves." Israel reportedly struck arms depots amid concerns that Syria would try to ship some high-tech weapons to Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon who might use them to strike that U.S. ally.

Asked whether the violence in Syria, estimated to have claimed the lives at at least 70,000 people, amounted to genocide, Carney declined to use the term, saying that would be up to the United Nations and relevant courts.