President Obama is close to approving the shipment of weapons to opposition forces fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, according to a Tuesday report by the Washington Post.
The report was issued hours after Obama met with reporters on Tuesday. He said the U.S. has evidence chemical weapons were used in Syria, but Obama said he needs more evidence to confirm who used the chemical weapons in Syria. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said last week the weapon was likely a sarin nerve agent.
Obama had said the use of chemical weapons was a "game changer" and would cross the "red line" he set to increasing U.S. military involvement. A reporter asked Obama Tuesday what his definition of "game changer" was in terms of the U.S. involvement in Syria.
"By 'game changer' I mean that we would have to rethink the range of options that are available to us," Obama said.
Arming the rebel forces fighting Assad's regime is an option that Pentagon officials have discussed with Congress at hearings in recent weeks. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said it's a military option he could potentially support if the U.S. could identify a force within the larger disorganized group of rebels that had U.S. national security interests in mind.
Obama said Tuesday he would prefer a negotiated peace and the removal of Assad from power. A White House official told the Washington Post the president plans to work to encourage Russian President Vladimir Putin to end his support of Assad. Obama spoke to Putin Monday, according to the Post.
Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Moscow in the "coming days" to further conversations about ending Russia's support of Assad, the Post reported. Putin has supported Assad by selling arms to the Syrian president during the civil war.
In response to questions Tuesday, Obama said he asked military and intelligence leaders to outline the options available to him to control a civil war that has seen tens of thousands of civilians die. The president said he has a range of options available.
"Obviously, there are options to me that are on the shelf right now we have not deployed," Obama said. "I won't go into the details of what those options might be."
Outside of arming the rebel forces, Pentagon leaders have discussed with Congress the possibility of establishing a no-fly zone over Syria. Military officials have warned about the challenges a no-fly zone would pose with Syria's advanced air defense network compared to the Iraq air defenses when the U.S. imposed a similar no-fly zone in the ‘90s.
The president said that while he's seen the assessments by U.S. intelligence agencies that chemical weapons have been used in Syria, he needs more proof Assad used them before ordering further military involvement.
"What we now have is evidence that chemical weapons have been used inside Syria, but we don't know how they were used, when they were used, who used them," Obama said. "We don't have a chain of custody that establishes what exactly happened and when I am making decisions about America's national security and the potential for taking additional action in response to chemical weapon use I have to make sure I have the facts."
Obama explained that if the U.S. moves too quickly without establishing the facts of the chemical weapons usage, the U.S. risks losing international support for further action. The U.S. has requested the United Nations open an investigation into the usage of chemical weapons in Syria.
"That's what the American people expect and if we end up rushing to judgment without hard effective evidence then we could find ourselves in a position where we can't mobilize the international community to support what we do," he said.
The president said the U.S. is already deeply engaged in trying to find an end to the fighting that has slaughtered thousands of civilians. He also explained the risk of the chemical weapons held by the Assad regime falling into the hands of terrorists.
"The proliferation risks are so significant that we don't want that genie out of the bottle," Obama said.