U.S.: Not trying to take out Assad with Syria response

Olivier Knox
Chief Washington Correspondent

The United States restated Tuesday that it means to drive Bashar Assad from power in Syria, but denied it would use potential U.S.-led military strikes in response to his forces’ alleged chemical weapons attack to do so.

“I want to make clear that the options that we are considering are not about regime change,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters at his daily briefing. “They are about responding to clear violation of an international standard that prohibits the use of chemical weapons.”

Overall United States policy in Syria is to push Assad from power, and any (successful) military strike would plainly aim to weaken his ability to attack the rebels his forces have battled for 2½ years. But Carney repeatedly said that President Barack Obama is weighing a response narrowly tailored to the alleged chemical weapons attack.

“It is our firm conviction that Syria's future cannot include Assad in power, but this deliberation and the actions that we are contemplating are not about regime change,” the spokesman insisted.

Obama has not made a final decision on the course of action and might still stop short of using force, Carney said.

At the same time, Carney escalated the rhetoric about the Assad regime’s alleged Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack, saying that failing to punish Syria would pose a “significant” threat to the United States.

“Absolutely, allowing the use of chemical weapons on a significant scale to take place without a response would present a significant challenge to or threat to the United States' national security interests,” Carney said.

Including the United States itself? “Correct,” he said. “To allow it to happen without a response would be to invite further use of chemical weapons.”

Carney also renewed the Obama administration’s pledge to disclose evidence it has gathered to buttress the charge that the Assad regime carried out a large-scale chemical weapons attack on civilians aligned with the opposition. “I think you can expect it this week,” he said.

But Carney, prodded by reporters to explain why the United States is so sure Syrian government forces carried out the attack, seemed to argue that the report was unnecessary to make the case against Assad.

“I'm not aware of any doubt that exists,” he said.

“We see no evidence of any alternative scenario. The regime has already used chemical weapons in this conflict against its own people on a small scale,” he said.

“It has maintained firm control of the stockpiles of chemical weapons in Syria. It has the rockets and the rocket capability that were employed in this chemical weapons attack. And it was engaged in an assault against these neighborhoods prior to the use of chemical weapons and in the aftermath of the use of these chemical weapons. You would have to be credulous indeed to entertain an alternative scenario that could only be fanciful,” he said.

But other possibilities exist: Accidental launch. Launch by a rogue Syrian military officer. A conventional shell striking a chemical weapons cache (depending on the substance). Launch by a third party like forces fighting for Assad but answering to Iran.

Asked whether the United States government had looked into those possibilities and ruled them out, National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan referred Yahoo News to past statements from Carney and Secretary of State John Kerry.

Asked whether Syria’s government could still take steps to forestall the United States reaction, whatever that turns out to be, Meehan demurred.

“Since the president hasn’t made a decision on how to respond, we can’t speculate on the second question,” she said.