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'Core' US interests now at stake in Syria, Obama says. Will he take action?

Obama's references to the 'core national interests' that would be threatened by the use or spread of chemical weapons in the Middle East could be a sign that a decision on US action in Syria is closer.

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Yet while Obama emphasizes the US interest in stopping any proliferation of chemical weapons, he is also mindful, he says, that rushing to judgment on something like WMD use in Syria could draw the US into “very expensive, difficult, costly interventions” when it might not be warranted.

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Such references suggest the president aims to avoid the kind of sequence of events that led to the Iraq war.


Israel is the closest US ally in the region, but both Jordan and Turkey are close US partners that support Assad’s departure from power, have long borders with Syria, and have taken in large numbers of Syrian refugees. Turkey, a member of NATO, has already seen its border region hit by Syrian bombs.

Iraq is another US partner in the region – albeit a problematic one – that could be among the first affected by any spreading of Syria’s chemical weapons. Iraq has experienced an accelerating going-and-coming of fighters and weapons across its border with Syria, and one result has been an uptick in recent months in attacks by Al Qaeda in Iraq. Keeping any chemical or biological weapons out of its hands – or those of other Islamist militants fighting in Syria – is clearly a vital US national interest.

Obama recognizes that it is in the interest of other US allies not sitting on Syria’s borders to keep a lid on chemical weapons, and he is calling for any response to proven use in Syria to come from the “international community.” But analysts are already warning that such a desirable scenario cannot be allowed to become the excuse for not taking action.

“The international community should act quickly [but] its response should certainly not be made subject to a … Russian veto,” says Jeffrey White, defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Russia has so far vetoed efforts in the UN Security Council to sanction Assad for his brutal repression of the opposition, but Russia hinted Friday that it might be changing its tune: The Russian government called on Assad to cooperate with UN investigators seeking to visit the sites of this week’s suspected chemical attacks.

US forces in the region

It’s less clear what Obama is referring to when he speaks of US “bases” in the region, as he did in the CNN interview. In recent years the US has largely shifted from land-based forces to an aircraft carrier presence, to the point where the Brookings Institution’s military scholar Michael O’Hanlon says the US “permanent onshore combat power in the region is very limited.”

The US does base the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, and maintains other facilities in a few other countries, such as a drone base in Saudi Arabia. The US is also known to have a certain number of CIA and special operations personnel in Jordan and Turkey training and advising Syrian rebels.

As the investigation of the suspected use of chemical weapons in Syria proceeds, it may eventually confront Obama with having to make a choice among the “core interests” he says are at stake.

The president suggests that America’s “values and ideals” would be offended and challenged by any recourse to chemical weapons, and many foreign policy experts are exhorting Obama to act resolutely to maintain the international taboo on chemical weapons.

Obama says it is in the US national interest to “do everything we can to put pressure on those who would kill innocent civilians,” but he also suggests the US would think hard about attacking another country “without a UN mandate and without clear evidence [of chemical weapns use] that can be presented.”

At some point, it may come down to a choice between one or the other.


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