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Terrorism & Security

Will the US go it alone on Syria?

Any attack on Syria in response to alleged chemical weapons use will have to move forward without Britain, after its Parliament rejected intervention.

By Staff writer / August 30, 2013

In this image taken from video, Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron, center, speaks during a debate on Syria, in Britain's parliament, London, Thursday, August 29, 2013.

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Europe Editor

Arthur Bright is the Europe Editor at The Christian Science Monitor.  He has worked for the Monitor in various capacities since 2004, including as the Online News Editor and a regular contributor to the Monitor's Terrorism & Security blog.  He is also a licensed Massachusetts attorney.

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Despite having lost the military support of a key US ally last night, President Barack Obama appears to be moving ahead with plans to justify and execute a military strike against the Syrian government for its alleged use of chemical weapons.

CBS News reports that the administration will release today a declassified version of its intelligence report regarding last week's alleged use of chemical weapons by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as well as a legal justification for US military action in response to that event.

But any such attack will have to happen without the participation of Britain. Parliament last night rejected Prime Minister David Cameron's motion to intervene in Syria. The Guardian reports that the government was defeated 272 to 285, as rebel members of Mr. Cameron's Conservative party joined the Labour opposition in blocking military action. Cameron agreed to abide by the decision.

"I strongly believe in the need for a tough response to the use of chemical weapons, but I also believe in respecting the will of this House of Commons," he said. "It is very clear tonight that, while the House has not passed a motion, it is clear to me that the British parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action. I get that and the government will act accordingly."

While the vote was a setback for President Obama – Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D) of California told Time that having Britain on board "makes a difference" – officials "made clear that the eroding support would not deter" his decision to go ahead alone, writes The New York Times.

Pentagon officials said that the Navy had now moved a fifth destroyer into the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Each ship carries dozens of Tomahawk cruise missiles that would probably be the centerpiece of any attack on Syria. ...

Although administration officials cautioned that Mr. Obama had not made a final decision, all indications suggest that a strike could occur soon after United Nations investigators charged with scrutinizing the Aug. 21 attack leave the country. They are scheduled to depart Damascus on Saturday.

But domestic pressure against a hasty attack is building as well. The Christian Science Monitor reports that Congressional officials are increasingly demanding a say in the authorization of military strikes.

House Speaker John Boehner suggested after a phone call with Mr. Obama Thursday that many of the “concerns” he laid out in the conversation were not addressed and that the case for military strikes would require more time for explanations from the president.

“Only the president can answer these questions, and it is clear that further dialogue and consultation with Congress, as well as communication with the American public, will be needed,” Mr. Boehner’s spokesman, Brendan Buck, said in a statement.

Similarly, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Rep. Mike Rogers (R) of Michigan told MSNBC on Thursday that "When we take what is a very difficult decision, you have to have buy-in by members and buy-in by the public. I think both of those are critically important and, right now, none of that has happened.”

Even within the president's own party, there is growing resistance: A bloc of 54 Democratic representatives sent a letter to Obama Thursday cautioning against bypassing Congress, the Monitor adds. “While we understand that as Commander in Chief you have a constitutional obligation to protect our national interests from direct attack, Congress has the constitutional obligation and power to approve military force, even if the United States or its direct interests (such as its embassies) have not been attacked or threatened with an attack,” the letter said.

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