Why Obama, when moving to punish Syria, is unlikely to go it alone (+video)
US action against Syria is all but certain, to send the message that use of chemical weapons won't be tolerated. The next questions are, how much international backing will Obama seek, and who will stand with him?
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US action “should not be used to … affect the outcome in Syria,” says Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. The point, he adds, should be to make it clear to Assad and to the world that “you cannot use these weapons and get off scot-free.”Skip to next paragraph
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Still, the US will need "international legitimacy” for any action, but Mr. Haass says the US has options beyond the UN. “The Security Council is not the sole custodian of what is legitimate,” he says.
The US could turn to NATO, as it did in Kosovo, or it could simply seek to cobble together a “coalition of the willing” of supportive Western and regional powers. Among likely candidates are NATO members Great Britain, France, and Turkey, and Arab countries including Jordan and Saudi Arabia, regional experts say.
Obama spoke over the weekend with British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President François Hollande. Mr. Cameron is expected to decide Tuesday whether to recall members of Parliament from summer holiday this week to debate military intervention in Syria. If he does, it could be a signal that intervention is imminent.
The Syrian government, Russia, and Iran have responded to signs of imminent US action by warning that Western military intervention would be “disastrous” and would risk enflaming most of the Middle East. Russia suggests that the US, by acting before it has proof of an attack and of the perpetrator, would be following in the footsteps of the Bush administration, which launched the Iraq war on the pretext of nonexistent stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.
And not all experts agree with the contention from Haass, of the Council on Foreign Relations, that assembling a "coalition of the willing" would give US action international legitimacy.
“Syria’s Assad knows chemical weapons use is banned under international law. International law equally bans military force against Syria,” says Mary Ellen O’Connell, a professor of international law at Notre Dame University in Indiana. The Security Council could authorize the use of force, she says, but only upon demonstration that an attack can accomplish a legitimate military objective – and “when it comes to arms control, military force has no record of success,” she says.
But Haass says international legitimacy cannot be determined by a requirement of unanimity. That would allow the world to be held hostage by an “outlier” country – Russia, in the case of the Syria conflict, he says.
In the Syria crisis, international legitimacy is not the only thing on the line, he says. So is American credibility. According to Haass, Obama “erred by not acting in June,” when the US first concluded that the Assad regime had used small amounts of chemical weapons, crossing a “red line” that Obama had laid down for Assad a year ago.
A US president can’t allow a red line to be repeatedly disregarded without losing credibility, Haass says. Obama now has a “rare opportunity,” he adds, to correct an earlier mistake.