President Barack Obama is working to build support for a military strike against Syria: assembling a multinational coalition, consulting with Congress and planning to lay out the evidence for the American public in coming days.
Obama, who has yet to say how the U.S. will respond to Syria’s use of chemical weapons, is drawing on lessons from U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya. He is considering options that can be executed without congressional approval, without U.S. troops on the ground and without stirring up a political backlash.
The decision on using force in Syria is complicated by the intensity of the civil war in which more than 100,000 people have been killed in 2 1/2-years of fighting. Obama has been wary of involving the U.S. more deeply in the Syrian conflict, citing concerns that intervention may bolster extremist groups or worsen the bloodshed.
“Their challenge is, how do we thread this needle of using force in a way that can help the situation on the ground, help the Syrian people, but doesn’t accelerate a civil war,” said Shawn Brimley, a former member of Obama’s National Security Council who directed strategic planning during the Libya intervention.
The U.S., France and the U.K. moved closer to military action yesterday, even as White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters that Obama hasn’t decided how to proceed. Carney stressed that any action wouldn’t be designed to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Its goal, he said, would instead be to send the message that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable and violates international norms.
“To allow it to happen without a response would be to give a green light to the Assad regime and other potential users of chemical weapons that there will be no consequences,” Carney said. “That is profoundly not in the interest of the United States, our allies and partners, to the region, or the world.”
Potential military moves, such as cruise missile strikes, may be carried out over a short period of time and at less cost than imposing no-fly zone, such as the one used over Libya. The risk of a limited strike is that it might be ineffective.
“If it’s just going to be some token attacks with cruise missiles with no follow up or no implementation of a policy to help the rebels succeed, then it won’t be worth anything,” Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said in an interview.
Even after a briefing from the White House national security adviser, Susan Rice, McCain said he didn’t have a sense of where the Obama administration is heading or its timetable.
As part of the consultations, Obama has also spoken with U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, according to the White House.
Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Secretary of State John Kerry, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin E. Dempsey and UN Ambassador Samantha Power have made dozens of additional calls to counterparts throughout the world.
Phil Carter, a senior fellow with the Center for New American Security, said that, scope aside, any military strikes “will be significantly more legitimate and have a much better claim to lawfulness if they’re done with a coalition.”
Short of a UN Security Council resolution, which appears unlikely because of Russia’s support for the Assad regime, Carter said, “the best legal case that can be made here is for some sort of collective self-defense by a group of regional actors or NATO or some other coalition.”
Planning for limited military strikes still doesn’t guarantee that, once initiated, the action will remain limited, Brimley said.
“Once you start using force, it becomes a very slippery slope,” he said. While the North Atlantic Treaty Organization action in Libya was authorized as a mission to protect civilians in Benghazi from now-deceased President Muammar Qaddafi, “it became ultimately a campaign to oust Qaddafi from power.”
“That was Libya, for God’s sake,” Brimley said. “This is Syria. Think of the worst possible situation in the Middle East and this is possibly it.”
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Rice and top Defense and State Department officials have been calling congressional leaders and chairmen of key committees. They have conveyed the status of deliberations rather than lay out details -- such as timing and cost -- or gauge lawmakers’ preferences, said a Republican aide familiar with the discussions who asked not to be identified to talk about the private consultations.
“If there is a military intervention, all warring parties must strictly adhere to the laws of war,” advocacy group Human Rights Watch said in a statement today, without taking a position for or against possible intervention by the U.S. and other countries.
The statement urged any response to take “all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians” and warned that providing weapons to other armed groups “can make a party complicit in their abuses.”
Lawmakers have said that they expect further conversations with the administration. Any announcement about U.S. action is expected to follow a report, expected before week’s end, on the intelligence community’s conclusions about the Assad regime’s role in the Aug. 21 attack on the Ghouta suburb, east of Damascus, the capital. Syrian opposition groups say that more than 1,300 people were killed in the pre-dawn incident.
“Any U.S. military action could bring serious consequences or further escalation,” said Representative Ed Royce, a California Republican and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who issued a statement saying that “the consequences are too great for Congress to be brushed aside.”
Carney yesterday declined to answer a question about whether Obama would seek authorization for the use of force from Congress, saying he could not speculate on specific military action. “We are engaging in what we believe is our responsibility here, which is to consult with Congress. That process is under way,” he said.