Obama's path to Syria strike suddenly littered with speed bumps

At home and abroad, obstacles to a US strike against Syria have suddenly emerged. Obama is providing members of Congress with evidence of Syrian chemical weapons attacks.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
The White House in Washington is seen through a keyhole in the fence, Thursday, Aug. 29, as President Obama continues to decide on a response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The White House planned to hold a conference call with congressional leaders late Thursday afternoon to lay out the evidence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad carried out the Aug. 21 attacks that international relief organizations say killed hundreds of Syrian civilians.

A sudden series of obstacles, including mounting congressional resistance and speed bumps overseas, have dramatically slowed the path the US was taking toward carrying out airstrikes in Syria over the use of chemical weapons there.

As recently as Wednesday President Obama said he had “concluded” that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had conducted large-scale chemical weapons attacks, and had to be held “accountable.” It now seems he must either wait for international partners to join the US, which could effectively put off punitive attacks for more than a week, or decide the US will “go it alone” and commence retaliatory measures without allied participation.

The White House planned to hold a conference call with congressional leaders late Thursday afternoon to lay out the evidence that Mr. Assad carried out the Aug. 21 attacks that international relief organizations say killed hundreds of Syrian civilians. That evidence will be made public “by the end of the week,” according to White House officials.

But a growing roster of members of Congress is saying that a US military response requires more than a conference call with congressional leaders.

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.

That domestic resistance was mounting as international complications increased – starting with British Prime Minister David Cameron’s inability to win quick approval Thursday from Parliament for military action.

Obama has said ever since he began discussing the possibility of US military action against Syrian targets over the Aug. 21 chemical attacks that any US action would be conducted in conjunction with international partners. But on Thursday the White House began publicly outlining the “national security interests” in play in Syria that would justify the US taking action without participation of other countries, should the president decide to do so.

Obama will make a decision on Syria “with our national security interests front and center,” White House deputy spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Thursday afternoon. Those interests threatened by Syria’s using chemical weapons range from its location “in a very volatile region of the world” to the fact that it borders Turkey, a NATO ally; Jordan, a close US partner, and Israel, “a country we’ve vowed to protect.”

Mr. Earnest made special note that the British foreign minister, William Hague, noted in comments Thursday that the Americans “will be able to make their own decisions” concerning Syria action. Strong international condemnation of the Assad regime, including from the Arab League, further buttresses the case for holding Assad accountable, the White House added.

Most regional and military analysts still expect Obama to wait for international partners to join any effort so that he – and more broadly, the US – won’t be accused of “going it alone” if the US once again takes military action against a Middle Eastern country. But some also note that the “compressed timeframe” for punitive action against Assad that Obama laid out in a recent CNN interview could also prompt the president to act, perhaps within a few days, with something less than a robust coalition.

Among the other complications that appear to be slowing US military action:

• United Nations chemical weapons inspectors are not expected to finish their work and leave Syria until Saturday. The US was unlikely to take action, perhaps by pounding Syrian military installation with cruise missiles, while the team is on the ground, regional experts say. And some countries that might have joined a “coalition of the willing” are calling for the UN team to first deliver its report to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the Security Council.

• The British Parliament will continue its debate on Syria next week, and even then a once-certain partner in any military action may not be ready to take action.

• The Arab League on Tuesday blamed Assad for the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attacks, but at the same time declined to support any retaliatory military action. That measured stance was less than the Obama administration hoped for and suggests the US would not enjoy the kind of regional support it had for intervention in Libya in 2011 for action against Syria.   

• Obama is scheduled to head to Russia next week for a G20 summit in St. Petersburg Sept. 5-6. The president would prefer not to be firing Tomahawk cruise missiles at Syrian targets while sitting down with world leaders – including Russian President Vladimir Putin – most foreign policy analysts say.

On the other hand, waiting until after the G20 summit, and into mid-September, would give Assad ample time to move what military assets he can and to brace for an attack, military experts say.

And then later in September comes the UN General Assembly session, where Obama will speak before leaders of the world. As some international affairs analysts note, Obama is unlikely to relish speaking to the world body as the US bombs an Arab country, even if it is Assad’s Syria. 

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