A week after he surprised his national security advisers by deciding to seek authorization from Congress, President Barack Obama’s path to military strikes against Syria isn’t getting any smoother.
The outrage that Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry expressed over an Aug. 21 nerve gas attack they blamed on the Syrian regime, an action that crossed the president’s “red line,” hasn’t brought a groundswell of support from lawmakers and the U.S. public.
With leaders from the Group of 20 nations wrapping up a two-day summit in St. Petersburg, few U.S. allies have said they’re ready to join in air strikes. Russia and China say they are unswayed by the U.S. assertions blaming Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the attack that killed more than 1,400 people, many of them women and children, near Damascus.
“It’s really, really difficult to build an international coalition on one track when you have great uncertainty over how Congress will respond,” said Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a policy group in Washington.
Obama now faces a timeline that may delay until next month -- after the seven-day opening of general debate at the United Nations General Assembly in New York that starts Sept. 24 -- an attack that he has said would be “limited in duration and scope” to punish the Syrian government and to reinforce an international norm against “heinous acts.”
The president arrived yesterday at the meeting in Russia, where he was meeting with other leaders in an effort to win a measure of political cover for an attack, even if other nations don’t join in any military action. Kerry leaves Washington today to meet with his European counterparts in Vilnius, Lithuania, and then with Arab League representatives in Paris.
Syria is overshadowing the formal agenda at the summit, where the host, Russian President Vladimir Putin, has expressed doubts about U.S. evidence that Assad’s regime ordered the chemical-weapons attack and declared that a military strike against Syria would violate international law.
Putin said he and Obama spoke today for about 20-30 minutes on their differences over Syria.
Discussion of the Syrian situation continued at the leaders’ dinner yesterday, which lasted almost three hours, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said by phone. The opinions offered were detailed, he said, declining to say whether the talk had narrowed any disagreements.
Military action against Syria “will definitely have a negative impact on the world economy, especially on the oil price,” Chinese Vice Finance Minister Zhu Guangyao told reporters in St. Petersburg yesterday. “We hope that this issue could be solved at the United Nations and through diplomatic channels.”
The subject wasn’t directly addressed by Obama or Chinese President Xi Jinping in their public remarks when they met one-on-one today in St. Petersburg. Obama said that while “there will continue to be some significant disagreements and sources of tension, I’m confident they can be managed.”
The one U.S. European ally who has joined Obama’s call for action is French President Francois Hollande. The two leaders met today on the sidelines of the summit and afterward Obama told Hollande “I value very much” the support for a strong international response.
“Doing nothing would mean impunity and there would be a risk that this would happen again,” Hollande said. “We must form as broad a coalition as possible,” including trying for a political solution.
Obama also has been calling U.S. lawmakers from the summit, Ben Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security adviser, told reporters in St. Petersburg. The president canceled a trip next week to California, where he was to attend a Democratic National Committee fundraiser in Los Angeles after speaking at an AFL-CIO meeting.
Obama, who was elected in 2008 promising to end the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, finds himself trying to sell a new military engagement with unpredictable consequences at a time when the U.S. public is war-weary.
The delay created by seeking congressional authorization has set up a cat-and-mouse game in Syria, giving Assad time to disperse and hide troops and equipment as the Pentagon steps up surveillance to find targets for Tomahawk cruise missiles.
“Time works both ways,” Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Sept. 3 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. “We have some pretty significant intelligence capabilities and we continue to refine our targets.”
Obama has ordered the Pentagon to put together an expanded list of possible targets in Syria in response to possible movements of troops by Assad’s regime, the New York Times reported.
The cost of a missile strike can be handled within the Pentagon’s budget and Congress won’t need to provide additional funds, Ben Rhodes, deputy National Security adviser, told reporters at a briefing today in St. Petersburg, Russia.
“My understanding is yes, that this is something that can be dealt with within the existing budget,” Rhodes said. He said the U.S. is contemplating attack plans that are “a fraction of the magnitude” of Libya or Iraq or Afghanistan.
Rhodes wouldn’t confirm reports that the Defense Department is planning a larger response in Syria than first thought. He said it’s still a “limited military action,” though there’s a a “broad spectrum” of military options available.
It’s an “overstatement” to say the U.S. is “changing the nature of this mission.” The Pentagon “will put forward options that best achieve those goals,” Rhodes said.
The U.S. State department warned U.S. citizens to avoid travel to Lebanon and began removing non-emergency staff and families from the embassy in Beirut. The U.S. also issued an alert for Turkey and a staff reduction at the consulate in Adana.
Lawmakers, returning to Washington during their recess, this week have been shown classified intelligence implicating the Syrian regime in the chemical weapons attack, which the Obama administration says involved use of sarin gas. As Obama has lobbied congressional leaders to support a military response, Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Dempsey have testified for hours in open hearings and closed-door sessions.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said that yesterday she viewed a video of the “horrendous” effects of the attack in Syria. She said she has asked that DVDs of the CIA-prepared video be distributed to other lawmakers.
Speaking on a trip to South Korea today, Daniel Russel, the State Department’s top official for East Asia, said Syria and North Korea share a “long and unsavory” history of cooperation.’ He said he would discuss the subject of chemical weapons with his Korean counterparts.
North Korea denies running chemical and biological weapons programs. The South Korean defense ministry said in 2012 that the North may have as much as 5,000 tons of chemical weapons.
In the financial markets, Treasuries rose, with 10-year yields falling from a two-year high. U.S. 10-year note yields slid 3 basis points to 2.96 percent at 10:55 a.m. in London. German 10-year yields retreated 4 basis points to 2 percent, and yields on U.K. gilts of similar maturity slipped below 3 percent. Futures on the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index were little changed. The euro slid 0.1 percent to $1.3114.
The Senate may vote on a use-of-force resolution next week, to be followed by a vote in the House, where it’s not clear whether leaders can overcome opposition from anti-Obama Republicans, anti-war Democrats and members of both parties who have expressed concerns about the U.S. being drawn into another Mideast war.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in the first test of Congress’s willingness to back American military action against the Syrian regime, on Sept. 4 adopted a use-of-force resolution on a 10-7 vote. The resolution authorizes military action in a “limited and specified manner,” and said the U.S. should attempt to shift the battlefield “momentum” decisively against Assad’s regime by providing weapons to rebel fighters.
Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, said yesterday he will vote “no” when the measure comes to the full Senate floor, demonstrating the hurdles Obama faces persuading even members of his own party on Syria.
Given the case the administration has presented, “I believe that a military strike against Syria at this time is the wrong course of action,” Manchin said in a statement that urged Obama to first “exhaust all diplomatic options” and gain international support.
In the House, 22 lawmakers have publicly voiced support of Obama’s Syrian proposal, while 74 oppose military action, according to a Bloomberg News tally. It would take 217 votes to pass the measure in the House, which currently has 433 members, with two seats vacant. The resolution may not reach the chamber until the week of Sept. 16.
Also that week, the UN may report on the laboratory analysis of samples collected by a UN chemical weapons inspection team at the site of the Aug. 21 attack. The team won’t make a judgment on who initiated the assault.
Biomedical and environmental samples have been delivered for analysis to laboratories in Europe, a process that should take about two weeks, according to a UN official and two Western diplomats, all of whom asked for anonymity because the schedule hasn’t been made public.
That timetable approaches the start of UN General Assembly session, which Obama is scheduled to address Sept. 24. A U.S. attack just before or during the UN session would risk a stream of speeches critical of the U.S., which would undercut any message Obama may hope to send Assad and his supporters.
The inspectors’ report will be important for U.S. allies, most of whom haven’t supported a strike publicly so far.
Obama has “lots more work to do on that front and lots more allies to find,” said Conley, the analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
That problem was highlighted in Obama’s meeting with Sweden’s prime minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, who received him on Sept. 4 as the president headed to St. Petersburg. While agreeing a response was needed to the chemical weapons use in Syria, Reinfeldt didn’t support military action. Similarly, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe yesterday also stopped short of backing a military strike.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said at least 80 countries or organization have acknowledged that chemical weapons were used in Syria, more than 50 saying so publicly. At least 30 countries or organizations “have stated in public or private that the Assad regime is responsible,” and nine countries support U.S. military action, she said. Those nine are Australia, Albania, Kosovo, Canada, Denmark, France, Poland, Romania and Turkey, according to Psaki.