BEIRUT — Deadly bombings hit the center of Damascus and a major Syria border crossing into Turkey on Tuesday as President Barack Obama strongly suggested that he would not be rushed into military entanglements in the Syria conflict, where evidence of chemical weapons use has raised the possibility of a U.S. intervention.
The blasts in Syria, which killed at least 13 people in the capital and at least five at the Bab al-Hawa crossing in northern Syria, came a day after an attempted assassination of Syria’s prime minister in central Damascus from a bomb aimed at his motorcade. The prime minister, Wael Nader al-Halqi, survived the attack but at least five others including a bodyguard were killed, Syria’s state news media reported.
In Washington, Obama told reporters at a wide-ranging news conference that despite a U.S. intelligence assessment last week that there was evidence that chemical weapons had been used in Syria, the evidence had not yet surpassed his “red line” for a change of U.S. strategy regarding the conflict, in which President Bashar Assad is fighting to stay in power against an increasingly violent insurgency.
“We don’t know how they were used, when they were used, who used them; we don’t have chain of custody that establishes what exactly happened,” Obama said. “And 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.”
If investigations prove that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons in the conflict, Obama said, “we would have to rethink the range of options that are available to us.”
Obama’s remarks came against a backdrop of increasing pressure on the administration to be more precise about what would constitute the basis for a U.S. intervention in Syria if chemical munitions were used, which he has called a “game changer.”
While some members of Congress have said the threshold for more active U.S. involvement has been crossed, the administration has resisted. There also appears to be little U.S. appetite for a military engagement in Syria, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll.
The United States is the largest donor of humanitarian assistance to civilians of the 2-year-old Syrian conflict and has called on Assad to resign in a negotiated political transition. The Obama administration has provided nonlethal aid to the insurgents but has resisted requests to provide them with weapons.
The violence in Syria on Tuesday at first centered around a booby-trapped car in Damascus that exploded near the back door of a building that used to house the Ministry of Interior, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an organization based in Britain, with a network of local anti-government activists in Syria. State television said the dead were all civilians.
In footage on state television, fire trucks and ambulances could be heard in the background as a camera panned over a scene of debris, bloodstains on the ground and dented cars with broken windows. A thick spiraling cloud of black smoke engulfed the area as passers-by spoke on their cellphones and looked around in disbelief.
It was not clear if any individual was targeted, and no group immediately claimed responsibility. The government blamed its armed opponents, while the opposition Local Coordinating Committees blamed the government, as has often happened in a war in which information is a weapon and each side seeks to demonize the other.
Later at the Bab al-Hawa crossing into Turkey, Syrian activists and residents on the Turkish side said Syrian warplanes bombed refugee encampments on the Syrian side. The Syrian Observatory uploaded video on the Internet to corroborate the assertion, showing the aftermath of an explosion. In the Turkish town of Reyhanli, near the crossing, residents said they believed at least five people on the Syrian side were killed and a flock of sheep destroyed.
An array of disparate groups are seeking to topple Assad, including the blacklisted Al Nusra Front, which recently pledged allegiance to al-Qaida and has claimed responsibility for bombings in the capital and other attacks that have killed civilians. Other rebel groups say they reject such tactics.
The government has been on a campaign recently to convince the United States and its allies to slacken their support for the uprising, arguing that it empowers violent extremist Islamist groups. The opposition contends that groups like Nusra gained prominence only after rebel fighters seeking to topple Assad family rule were unable to win significant military support from the West, while extremists had willing donors.
As the violent civil war in Syria enters its third year and Assad’s opponents try to inch closer to Damascus, the city has witnessed increasingly frequent explosions. These have included powerful bombings that have targeted government officials, others whose targets appear random and occasional rebel mortars that sail into the center.
Far more devastating has been the relentless bombardment of rebel-held suburbs — and other areas around the country — by security forces using artillery and airstrikes. More than 70,000 people have died in the conflict.
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Though the government tightly controls security in the center of the capital, the bombings have fueled a growing sense of insecurity that has prompted anger among Damascus residents who blame rebels for attacking civilians and the state for its inability to stop the violence.
In Marjeh Square on Tuesday, a man interviewed on state TV screamed, “We were just showing up to work, haven’t you had enough of Syrians’ blood, Qaradawi?”
He was referring to a Sunni Muslim imam based in Qatar, one of the countries that backs the opposition.
Early in the Syrian uprising, which began as a peaceful protest movement but turned to armed opposition after security forces fired on demonstrators, a prominent adviser to Assad blamed the imam for inciting Syrian Sunnis against the government.
The violence has been accompanied by an increasingly dire humanitarian crisis affecting Syrian refugees.
Oxfam, a British charity, warned in a report on Tuesday that the 6.8 million internally displaced Syrians need immediate assistance and that the funds currently available are not sufficient to deal with a crisis of such magnitude.
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