WASHINGTON — Even as the White House said it still lacked proof that Syria unleashed chemical weapons against its people, President Barack Obama on Monday raised the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin in an effort to reach out one of Syria’s key allies.
In a telephone call between the two leaders on a range of topics, Obama brought up the Syrian conflict, “underscoring concern over Syrian chemical weapons,” administration officials said in a statement.
The administration has long been frustrated with Russian resistance to U.S. efforts to tighten sanctions against Syria, but it said that Obama and Putin had agreed to stay in “close consultation,” and that Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov would continue the discussions.
A U.S. official declined to reveal details of Obama’s conversation with Putin but added that it was "only natural" for the pair to discuss the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria – even as the hunt for hard evidence continues – as Russia has for some time expressed concerns about the issue and the security of Syria’s substantial chemical weapons stockpiles.
"It would only make sense for the presidents to discuss what those concerns are and instruct their teams to continue consulting on the issue," said the official, who asked not to be further identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Meanwhile, at a news conference Monday in Moscow, Lavrov said the use of weapons of mass destruction was “too serious and no one should play it.” He said, “There are states and external players who think that all means are good if they lead to displacement of the Syrian regime.”
The call between Obama and Putin came as the administration said it was seeking more evidence to confirm whether the Syrian regime used chemical weapons, but officials said they don’t know how long that might take.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the administration is working with the Syrian opposition, as well as its allies, including France and Britain, to find answers and is pressing Syrian leader Bashar Assad to allow a United Nations team into the country to investigate.
The president has said that Syrian use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line,” requiring reaction from the U.S. and its allies, but Carney said more evidence was needed.
“If you’re as serious as the president is about this kind of transgression, if it were to occur, you need to be sure of your facts and you need to have facts that can be corroborated and that can be reviewed and that are airtight,” he said.
White House officials set off alarms on Capitol Hill last week when they acknowledged for the first time that the United States had received some evidence, with varying degrees of confidence, that Assad had used chemical weapons on a small scale, the lethal nerve agent sarin in particular.
It triggered an immediate call for action against Syria among some lawmakers who for months have been pushing the administration to show stronger support for the insurgency trying to unseat Assad. The U.S. so far has provided only non-lethal aid.
But Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel joined Carney on Monday in insisting, as he expressed last week, that conclusive evidence is not yet in on the possible use of Syrian chemical weapons.
"We are continuing to assess what happened," Hagel said during a joint press conference with Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera. "When? Where? I think we should wait to get the facts before we make any judgments on what action, if any, should be taken and what kind of action."
When asked if he ruled out any unilateral U.S. action on Syria, or if the anti-regime rebels had become too radical to work with, Hagel said, "My role and my responsibility is to present to the president options for any contingency. I won’t speculate on those options, nor publicly discuss those options."
A U.S. intelligence official, who spoke to McClatchy only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, characterized the assessments as giving “low or moderate confidence” that sarin was used by the Assad regime.
Administration officials have said on numerous occasions that bogus and exaggerated intelligence was used in 2003 to justify the invasion of Iraq, and Carney said Monday that the administration needs “more than simply intelligence assessments” before making a decision on what action it might take.
“I think all Americans would hope and expect that on a matter this serious that we would be very careful in that process and would insist upon gathering all the facts, and not rushing to take action,” he said.
A poll Monday found modest support for a military strike against Syria if the chemical weapons reports are confirmed. The Pew Research Center found that by a 45 percent to 31 percent margin, more Americans favor than oppose the U.S. and allies taking military action against Syria.
The national survey by Pew found that public attention to the Syrian conflict remains low and nearly a quarter of Americans – 23 percent – have no opinion about the use of military force.
Conducted April 25-28 among 1,003 adults, the survey found that Republicans favored military force by a 56 percent to 24 percent margin if the claims prove to be true. Democrats were less supportive, at 46 percent in favor vs. 34 percent opposed.
The Syrian regime has called for an international investigation into the reports of chemical weapons use, but it has yet to give permission to U.N. investigators who are waiting in Cyprus to enter the country.
Asked several times, Carney would not say how long the investigation might take.
“I think our history provides us with examples of why we need to be especially assiduous when it comes to evaluating and gathering evidence in matters related to these kinds of issues,” he said.
Jonathan S. Landay of the Washington Bureau contributed.