U.S. President Barack Obama and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron confront a decision whether to attack Syria without a UN mandate amid Russian resistance, demands for consultation from lawmakers at home and domestic opposition to involvement in another conflict in the Middle East.
Obama additionally is facing declining public approval ratings and the prospect of a partisan fight with Congress in the coming weeks over funding government operations and increasing the federal debt limit.
Obama said in an interview aired last night on PBS’s “NewsHour” program that while the U.S. has concluded the Syrian government was responsible for a chemical weapons attack against civilians on Aug. 21, he hasn’t decided on a course of action. He said the U.S. won’t become ensnared in the Syrian civil war, now in its third year.
“We can take limited, tailored approaches, not getting drawn into a long conflict, not a repetition of, you know, Iraq, which I know a lot of people are worried about,” he said.
Still, the possibility that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or his allies in Iran and Hezbollah will respond in unpredictable ways, or that an attack may go awry, also poses a challenge to Obama and U.S. allies.
The U.S. is concerned that letting the Syrian government go unpunished would send a signal to other countries, including North Korea, that have large inventories of chemical arms, as well as making it likely that the Assad regime will attack civilians with such weapons again, according to a U.S. official who asked not to be identified discussing war-planning.
Obama said the international community must “send a shot across the bow” that will deter further use of chemical weapons.
The latest hurdle for the U.S. and its NATO allies to build international support for action came during a meeting yesterday of the UN Security Council’s permanent members when Russia raised objections to the U.K.’s draft of a resolution authorizing the use of force.
“By far the best thing would be if the United Nations could be united, unlikely as that seems in the face of the vetoes from Russia and China that we’ve had in the past,” U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters in London. “If there isn’t agreement at the United Nations, then we and other nations still have a responsibility on chemical weapons.”
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Syria “cannot hide behind Russian intransigence at the Security Council.”
Russia’s official stance on the U.K. draft resolution will be announced after a thorough study of the document in Moscow, according to the country’s mission to the UN.
The U.S. dismissed that as a stalling tactic.
“The Russians have made it clear that they have no interest in holding the Syrian regime accountable,” Harf said.
The confrontation with Syria will be at the forefront when Obama, Cameron and French President Francois Hollande join other leaders of the Group of 20 nations next week, hosted by Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg, Russia.
France, which has backed calls for punitive action against Syria, said any measures should wait until UN inspectors conclude their probe into the Aug. 21 chemical attack. Their report will be ready in “two or three days,” Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, a minister and government spokeswoman, said today. “Before acting, we need proof,” she said.
Syria’s UN ambassador, Bashar Jaafari, asked Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to extend the inspectors’ investigation to include government allegations that rebel groups have used chemical weapons against Syrian troops on three occasions this month.
While UN inspectors and U.S. and other intelligence agencies have established that Syrian forces used chemical weapons against civilians outside Damascus, two U.S. officials said, some intercepted Syrian military communications shed little or no light on who ordered the attack or whether Assad or other top regime officials gave prior authorization.
Both officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified intelligence, and one said the intercepted communications leave open the possibility that a lower-level military officer launched the attack without direct orders.
The U.S. has warships and submarines carrying Tomahawk cruise missiles ready for action in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The Navy decided yesterday to keep the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf region instead of returning it to Washington state as planned, according to a U.S. defense official, who asked not to be identified discussing the move.
Obama and Cameron also have yet to rally support from lawmakers and voters at home for strikes on Syria.
Cameron yesterday backed down from asking lawmakers for immediate support, after the opposition Labour Party demanded a delay until the UN team’s report is finished.
If Labour opposes military action, Cameron may struggle to win approval from the House of Commons, as some of his own Conservative Party lawmakers have expressed reluctance to back such a move. Parliament debate is scheduled to begin today and Cameron pledged to hold a further vote before any action is taken.
Members of the U.S. Congress, who don’t return from a recess until Sept. 9, have been pressing Obama to seek their approval for any action by U.S. forces. Senior administration officials are scheduled to brief congressional leaders and the chairmen of national-security committees later today, according to a White House official, who asked not to be identified.
House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, released a statement last night saying that Obama has a duty to provide “a clear, unambiguous explanation” of how any military action would advance U.S. objectives, as well as how it fits with congressional authority to make declarations of war.
“The views of the Congress are important to this process, so we will be continuing to engage with them as the president reaches a decision on the appropriate U.S. response,” White House National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement.
In the U.S. and Britain, polls show a majority of the public opposes further involvement in the Syrian conflict.
The prospect of a military confrontation in the Middle East, a region that produces 35 percent of the world’s oil, has rumbled through markets. Stock markets in the region slumped for a second day yesterday as oil prices reached a two-year high.
West Texas Intermediate oil fell 1 percent to $109.08 at 7:40 a.m. in London, retreating from the highest level in more than two years. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index gained 0.3 percent as Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM) and Chevron Corp. (CVX) rose more than 2 percent.
Allied leaders are working to define the goals of a strike on Syria, according to the U.S. official. Any use of military force won’t be limited to a one-day operation, the official said.
Options being explored include how to deter and degrade Syria’s chemical-weapons capability and defeat the Assad government’s defense capabilities, another U.S. official said, also speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal policy deliberations.
Separate discussions are being held on whether, when and how to accelerate and expand military and intelligence assistance to mainstream Syrian rebel groups to keep extremists affiliated with al-Qaeda from reaping the benefits of Western attacks on the Assad regime, said a third U.S. official who requested anonymity to discuss possible covert-action programs.
Amid the diplomatic dueling at the UN, the Obama administration is consulting with NATO allies, including Turkey, as well as Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, to determine which countries would participate in a military operation.
China, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, has also raised questions about armed intervention. Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that a military strike could intensify unrest in the Middle East and instead urged a political resolution, according to a statement on the ministry’s website.
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