Why Obama, when moving to punish Syria, is unlikely to go it alone

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?

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at the State Department in Washington, Monday, Aug. 26, 2013, about the situation in Syria.

Senior US officials are making clear that President Obama will act in coming days to punish Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad for what the US has concluded was his regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians – and to signal to the world that the United States will not tolerate any crossing of the red line against chemical weapons use.

A key question now is what backing Mr. Obama will seek on the international stage as he green-lights expected military action, and who will stand with the US as it moves forward.

“Make no mistake: President Obama intends to hold accountable those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement at the State Department Monday afternoon.

Mr. Kerry – who said he had repeatedly viewed gut-wrenching videos of the victims of last week’s attacks outside Damascus as he consulted with world leaders about the response – also described the aims of US action as twofold.

Calling the use of chemical weapons “a moral obscenity,” Kerry said the implications of the attack in Damascus suburbs stretched “beyond Syria itself” to “the indiscriminate use of weapons the civilized world decided long ago should never be used.”

His words suggest that the US will not act alone, but will seek to create a large enough coalition in support of any action to argue that the “civilized world” supports it.

The US has not said whether it will seek United Nations backing for any action, but such a move seems unlikely because Russia has already made clear that it would stand in the way of Security Council approval. Russia has previously vetoed other Security Council resolutions on Syria that it fears might be used as a pretext for international intervention, so it would almost certainly veto a resolution that overtly seeks to legitimize US action.

The likelihood of bypassing the Security Council has led to speculation that the US will follow the example of the 1999 Kosovo war bombing campaign, which President Bill Clinton ordered and which was carried out under NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) authorization.

But the comparison to Kosovo is likely to stop at the way the Obama administration seeks to broaden international legitimacy for what will essentially be an American action, US foreign policy analysts say.

In the Kosovo case, NATO bombing continued for three months, until the Yugoslav army was compelled to withdraw from Kosovo. But any US action in Syria seems likely to be limited both in duration and scope: Speculation is settling on cruise missile attacks aimed at Syrian military installations, and they won’t be designed to topple Mr. Assad, analysts say.

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.”

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.

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