Obama Works to Pare Checklist for U.S.-Led Syria Strike

The U.S. decision yesterday to bypass the United Nations Security Council removes one item from a checklist of actions the Obama administration must complete before launching any military strike against Syria.

Among the challenges yet to be resolved are the administration’s pledge to deliver a report on its evidence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces used the prohibited weapons, consultations demanded by Congress, the decision by the U.K. and France to wait for findings by UN inspectors and planning for possible retaliation by Syria or its allies in Iran and Hezbollah.

Administration officials say preparations are proceeding. “We cannot allow diplomatic paralysis to be a shield for perpetrators of these crimes,” Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, told reporters yesterday.

Obama’s travel schedule adds to the complexity. He’s scheduled to leave Washington on Sept. 3 for a trip to Sweden, followed by a meeting of the Group of 20 economic powers in St. Petersburg, Russia. The host country has opposed a UN resolution authorizing action to punish Syria, a longtime ally.

While nothing would stop Obama from ordering a strike from overseas, it “would be unusual and awkward” for him to do so, said Damon Wilson, a former NATO and National Security Council official who’s now executive vice president of the Atlantic Council, a policy group in Washington.

Obama said yesterday on “PBS NewsHour” that he’s convinced the Syrian regime used chemical weapons and is determined to send “a pretty strong signal” that it must not do it again. He said he’d made no decision on what action to take and that the Pentagon has laid out options for him.

‘Ready to Go’

“I’m certain they’re all ready to go,” said retired Marine General Anthony Zinni, who organized air strikes against Iraq in 1998 as head of the U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East.

“This kind of thing is not that hard,” Zinni said in an interview, referring to planning for potential cruise-missile attacks. “If you have the targets, it’s a matter of moving assets into position. A lot of this could be in place.”

The Navy has stationed four destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean that could launch Tomahawk cruise missiles and a fifth is en route. It also probably has submarines in the region that could do the same, although the Navy doesn’t disclose submarine deployments.

‘Matter of Days’

While military planning may not be an obstacle, the diplomatic preparations for a joint strike by the U.S. and allies may still take time.

“If any action would be taken against Syria, it would be an international collaboration,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said today at a defense ministers’ conference in Brunei.

Establishing a legal framework for conducting a military strike is particularly important in the U.K., Wilson said, and the legal case is made more complicated by bypassing Russia’s opposition in the UN Security Council.

Providing a justification for NATO air strikes in Kosovo in the late 1990’s, which also avoided a UN resolution, took about six months, Wilson said.

“This administration looks poised to do that in a matter of days, remarkably,” he said. “I’m not sure they have enough time to do all this. That’s a significant effort.”

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron backed down yesterday from seeking immediate support from Parliament for a potential strike after the Labour Party opposition demanded a delay of any vote until United Nations inspectors complete their report on chemical weapons in Syria. France also prefers to wait for the UN inspectors, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, a minister and government spokeswoman, said today.

UN Inspectors

The UN’s investigators will continue their on-site probe tomorrow, leave Syria by early Aug. 31 “and report to me as soon as they come out,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in Vienna today.

Obama has yet to lay out a case for U.S. action in Syria to the American public, which polls show remains war-weary after a decade of conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The administration has said it will produce a public report on its evidence of Syria’s culpability for using chemical weapons, as well as a classified version for Congress.

Mustering Evidence

The administration is struggling to muster evidence supporting its assertions that Assad is responsible for the chemical attacks. Because the intelligence is limited and inconclusive, the best the administration may be able to do is to make the case that the Syrian leader is responsible for everything that happens with the arsenal of chemical and biological weapons his regime has amassed, according to three U.S. intelligence officials who asked not to be identified discussing classified intelligence.

Later today, the administration is scheduled to brief congressional leaders and top members of the national-security committees by teleconference, according to a White House official, who asked not to be identified discussing the plans.

House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, sent a letter to Obama yesterday asking that he “personally make the case to the American people and Congress for how potential military action will secure American national security interests, preserve America’s credibility, deter the future use of chemical weapons, and, critically, be a part of our broader policy and strategy.”

Boehner also called on Obama to explain “on what basis any use of force would be legally justified” and whether congressional authorization is required.

Some members of Congress have demanded an opportunity to debate and vote on any military action and said they’re willing to come back to Washington early to do so. Congress isn’t due to return from a five-week recess until Sept. 9.

While the U.S. may be days away from launching a military strike, Wilson said, “I just wouldn’t rule out unanticipated complications.”

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