Obama Declines to Outline Plan for Syria in White House Press Conference

President Barack Obama speaks during a press conference Tuesday at the White House.

President Barack Obama speaks during a press conference Tuesday at the White House.

President Barack Obama declined to outline a specific forward path for the United States in the escalating Syrian conflict during a press conference Tuesday, despite confirmation that chemical weapons had been used in the region.

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“When I am making decisions about America’s national security and the potential for taking additional action in response to chemical weapon use, I’ve got to make sure I’ve got the facts,” Obama said, adding that as information became more clear about how the weapons were used he is prepared to put more military options on the table.

“I won’t go into the details of what those options might be, but clearly that would be an escalation in our view of the threat to the security of the international community, our allies and the United States,” he said. “And that means that there’s some options that we might not otherwise exercise that we would strongly consider.”

Obama has been under pressure from some Republican lawmakers, including war hawks Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to be more direct about Syria, which is seen as a regional lynchpin in the Middle East and whose leader, Bashir al-Assad, is accused of brutally massacring his own people in the midst of a revolution, with assistance from Iran.

[AP: Obama Says U.S. Doesn’t Know All the Facts From Syria]

But Obama also faces domestic political realities that prevent him from pursuing a more aggressive role, experts say.

“Unless the president or someone else in American leadership gives a better narrative about what’s at stake for America or something happens that really clarifies that American interests are at stake, I think there’s going to be reticence,” says Blaise Mitsztal, associate director of foreign policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Obama did emphasize that the United States has been overtly engaged in the Syrian conflict – from giving humanitarian aid to applying sanctions – since it began two years ago and pointed out the ongoing civilian casualties.

“We already are deeply engaged in trying to bring about a solution in Syria; it is a difficult problem,” Obama said. “But even if chemical weapons were not being used in Syria, we’d still be thinking about tens of thousands of people, innocent civilians, women, children, who’ve been killed by a regime that’s more concerned about staying in power than it is about the well-being of its people.”

[HAGEL: U.S. Remains Undecided on Syrian Chemical Attacks]

Mitsztal says humanitarian crises have rarely been enough to overcome popular political resistance in the past.

“So I don’t see public hue and cry about the humanitarian issue as forcing America’s hand,” he says.

Tamara Wittes, director of Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute, says it’s clear Americans are war weary from prolonged engagements in Iraq, Afghanistan and even to some extent in Libya.

“The proportion of Americans polled who say it’s better for the United States to stay out of world affairs is higher now than it’s been at any point since 1992, after the Soviet Union fell apart,” she says. “That makes any international engagement a heavy lift for any president, but I think particularly for this president who has defined himself as the guy who’s getting us out of these engagements, it’s a real uphill climb.”

Obama’s rejection of a unilateral approach – really a condemnation of his predecessor, President George W. Bush – also is hampering his ability to act more directly.

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“What you’re seeing is that although everybody sort of wants a piece of the action regionally in Syria – everyone is scared about what’s happening there – [but] no one actually shares the same vision of what should happen; everybody is sort of working at cross-purposes,” says Mitsztal. He adds that the Obama administration’s negotiating power is limited because of it’s resistance to committing troops to the region.

“How much leverage can you have when you don’t have skin in the game? It’s hard to tell other countries what to do when we’re not willing to at least publicly and visibly engage,” Mitsztal says.

Obama did take the opportunity to reaffirm his commitment to dealing with Syria, despite his refusal to outline a concrete game plan.

“So there are a whole host of steps that we’ve been taking precisely, because even separate from the chemical weapons issue, what’s happening in Syria is a blemish on the international community generally and we’ve got to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to protect the Syrian people,” he said.

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