Showing solidarity with Israel's growing concern about chemical weapons in neighboring Syria, President Barack Obama stated bluntly Wednesday that if an investigation he had ordered found proof that the Syrian military had used such weapons it would be a "game changer" in U.S. involvement in the civil war there.
On the first day of his first trip to Israel as president, in which Israeli officials stated their own conclusion that chemical weapons had been used in an attack Tuesday in Syria, Obama's remarks represented both an effort to warn the Syrian government of the consequences of using its chemical arsenal and a signal of his administration's support for Israel, the central point of his visit.
U.S. officials reiterated that they did not have independent evidence that chemical weapons had been used, and the president made clear that he would require proof gathered by investigators before he would come to any conclusions. Obama, while vocal in his opposition to the government of President Bashar Assad of Syria, has been reluctant to involve U.S. forces in support of the opposition. Presidential aides made clear that he was not signaling any change in that regard.
But Obama's remarks, in which he pointedly left open the possibility that Assad's government had used chemical weapons — and all but ruled out Assad's assertions that insurgents had used them — were unusually strong in tone.
"Once we establish the facts, I have made clear that the use of chemical weapons is a game changer," Obama said at a news conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel.
Again and again, Obama signaled that the United States and Israel were partners on a broad range of issues, reinforcing their historic alliance and America's stated commitment to protect Israeli security. Obama pointedly emphasized his administration's pledge to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, one of Netanyahu's greatest fears.
But concern about chemical weapons in Syria were a major focus of the day.
Two senior ministers in Israel's new Cabinet said publicly Wednesday that chemical weapons had been used, and several government officials said in interviews that Israel had credible evidence of an attack. The ministers, Tzipi Livni and Yuval Steinetz, were among those who met with Obama on the first day of his trip.
Obama's remarks seemed calculated, in part, to counter claims by both the Syrian government and its major supporter, Russia, that opposition forces had mounted a chemical attack against the government.
While Obama cautioned that he did not have all the facts, he said, "We know the Syrian government has the capacity to carry out chemical attacks."
The National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the umbrella political group that wants to topple Assad, said in a statement that it "condemns these attacks and holds the Assad regime fully responsible for shedding Syrian blood."
The group said the attacks killed at least 19 civilians and left 69 others short of breath, with some in critical condition.
The coalition accused government forces of carrying out two chemical weapons attacks Tuesday — one in the Khan al-Assal area of northern Aleppo province, as originally asserted, and a second strike in the Ataybah area of suburban Damascus.
Fears about Syria's growing instability are shadowing Obama. Today, he will visit the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, who is expected to raise worries about the plight of Palestinians in Syria. Friday, he will meet King Abdullah in Jordan, which has been flooded with Syrian refugees.