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Obama's remarks spur calls for more leadership on Syria

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Syria damage
Syrian rebels and bystanders watched a bulldozer clean the debris outside Dar Al-Shifa hospital in Aleppo, in northern Syria, on Nov. 22, 2012.
AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Following reports that chemical weapons have been used in Syria's civil war, President Barack Obama has been facing increasing pressure to follow through on his earlier warnings and act. He addressed that pressure in a news conference Tuesday morning.

Obama said it was unclear who had used such weapons, and said that "we would have to rethink the range of options that are available to us" if it were established that Syrian President Bashar Assad had done so.

After listening to Obama's news conference during The Daily Circuit, Eric Schwartz of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy agreed that Obama needs to show greater leadership than he has done so far.

"The use of chemical weapons should be a factor that emboldens the administration to take greater action and to exercise greater leadership internationally in trying to create change in Syria," Schwartz said. "Everyone agrees that this is a government that has to go. The evidence of chemical weapons, I think, makes that imperative even greater.

"It means we have to rally the international community to a much greater extent to condemn the regime in terms of the chemical weapons, but I would say it means we also have to exercise greater leadership internationally. That means bringing greater pressure on the Russians and the Chinese, considering much more seriously moving forward on options like a no-fly zone, in large measure to put pressure on governments like China and Russia.

"It's not clear to me that arming the rebels or anything short of boots on the ground will immediately change the situation in Syria. But if we don't demonstrate greater leadership and a willingness to consider and move forward on these kinds of options, I don't think other governments who have been reluctant or resistant are going to be inclined to go along."

Tabler said that "a lack of leadership" is "one of the big problems that we've had so far."

"And what I mean by that is the inability to articulate a clear and coherent policy that would achieve our objectives," he said. "Here are our goals: President Assad must step aside, and we want a peaceful, democratic and prosperous post-Assad Syria. ... We really don't do anything to actually achieve getting Assad to step aside. We've tried diplomatically, but beyond diplomacy we're not willing to do much more. And that's what's causing all of this confusion.

"This is an example that the Israelis and the Iranians are going to watch very closely because they have a showdown on Iran's nuclear program coming up. And the president has laid down a red line for that, too, and basically said, 'All options are on the table.' In this case, if the president backs off, that's going to undermine not only his credibility but American credibility, and that causes individual actors in the Middle East to act on their own. And that's something we've said we do not want to have happen, whether on the Israeli side or the Iranian side."

Like Schwartz, Tabler pointed to the Syrian refugee problem as a dangerous factor.

"It's a moral issue, but it's also a strategic one," Tabler said. "We just can't have all 22 million Syrians, or even three-quarters of them, running for their borders for safety. That's not in our interests, in our neighbors' interests or our allies' interests. But in order to do that you have to stop Assad. What we know so far is that nothing stops Assad except when you lay down a red line you're willing to enforce. President Obama has done that; the problem is, Assad is calling his bluff. 

"The people who are masters at laying down red lines for Assad and then enforcing them are the Israelis. And they've done that on a number of occasions. What that involves most of the time are air strikes."


• The Syria conflict
Syria's government has been trying to suppress a popular uprising since March 2011, employing increasing levels of violence. (BBC)