Julie Pace

WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama signaled Tuesday he would consider U.S. military action against Syria if “hard, effective evidence” is found to bolster intelligence that chemical weapons have been used in the 2-year-old civil war. Among the potential options being readied for him: weapons and ammunition for the Syrian rebels.

Despite such planning, Obama appealed for patience during a White House news conference, saying he needed more conclusive evidence about how and when chemical weapons detected by U.S. intelligence agencies were used and who deployed them. If those questions can be answered, Obama said he would consider actions the Pentagon and intelligence community have prepared for him in the event Syria has crossed his chemical weapons “red line.”

“There are options that are available to me that are on the shelf right now that we have not deployed,” he told reporters packed into the White House briefing room.

Beyond lethal aid to the rebels, several government agencies are also drafting plans for establishing a protective “no-fly zone” over Syria and for targeted missile strikes, according to officials familiar with the planning. However, the officials, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the internal deliberations, stressed that Obama had not yet decided to proceed on any of the plans.

Mindful that any military intervention in the combustible Middle East would be complicated and dangerous, Obama hinted the U.S. would probably avoid taking action unilaterally. Part of the rationale for building a stronger chemical weapons case against Assad, Obama said, is to avoid being in a position “where we can’t mobilize the international community to support what we do.”

Obama has resisted calls to expand U.S. assistance beyond the nonlethal aid the government is providing the rebels. That has frustrated some allies as well as some U.S. lawmakers, who say the deaths of 70,000 Syrians should warrant a more robust American response.

Second-term milestone

Tuesday’s wide-ranging news conference coincided with the 100-day mark of Obama’s second term. It’s a stretch that has been defined by the defeat of gun control legislation he supported, as well as the continuation of old disputes that marked the president’s first four years in office, including the Syria conflict and the launching of his controversial health care overhaul. Asked if he still had “the juice” to get legislation approved, he smiled and paraphrased Mark Twain’s famous line, saying, “Rumors of my demise may be a little exaggerated at this point.”

Another issue that frustrated Obama in his first term resurfaced when he was pressed about the hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay, the detention center he promised to close but hasn’t been able to. Obama said he would make another run at it, though he was vague about how.

“I’m going to go back at this,” he said. “I’ve asked my team to review everything that’s currently being done in Guantanamo, everything that we can do administratively, and I’m going to re-engage with Congress to try to make the case that this is not something that’s in the best interest of the American people.”

In Syria, Assad has refused to let a U.N. team into the areas near Damascus and Aleppo where chemical weapons are believed to have been used. The White House says the team is standing by and could deploy to Syria within 48 hours if Assad allows it in. Given the unlikelihood of Assad giving the inspectors access, the U.S. says it is also seeking answers on its own and through international partners.

While Obama insists all options are on the table when it comes to dealing with Syria, the White House has little appetite for putting American soldiers into combat there. Even Arizona’s Republican Sen. John McCain, who has pressed for aggressive U.S. involvement, has said putting U.S. troops on the ground in Syria would be a mistake.

Obama also took questions Tuesday about the immigration debate on Capitol Hill. Obama said that while a bill crafted by eight senators was not the legislation he would have written, “I do think that it meets the basic criteria that I laid out from the start.”