Obama considers military options in Syria

President Obama met with national security advisers Saturday to discuss US military options after the alleged chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus.

AP Photo / The Scranton Times-Tribune, Butch Comegys
President Barack Obama speaks on Friday, Aug. 23, 2013 at the Lackawanna College, in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Obama met with security advisers Saturday.

With the UN hamstrung, President Obama is looking hard at military options in the wake of an alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria.

The US Navy has sent a fourth warship armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles into the eastern Mediterranean Sea, the Associated Press reported. The USS Mahan was scheduled to return to its base in Norfolk, Va., but on Friday commander of the US Sixth Fleet extended the tour of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer.

And CBS News reported Friday that the US was making the initial preparations for a cruise missile attack on the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

"The Defense Department has a responsibility to provide the president with options for contingencies, and that requires positioning our forces, positioning our assets, to be able to carry out different options — whatever options the president might choose," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters traveling with him to Asia on Saturday.

The US Navy used Tomahawk cruise missiles in 2011 as part of an international military action that led to the overthrow of the Libyan government. But for a variety of reasons, Libya isn't a likely model for international intervention in Syria.

President Obama met with national security advisers Saturday to discuss his options after the alleged sarin gas attack on rebel forces in the suburbs of Damascus. American and European intelligence agencies have made a preliminary assessment that chemical weapons were used by Syrian forces, according to the Guardian. The international aid group Doctors Without Borders says it treated some 3,600 patients with "neurotoxic symptoms," and of those, 355 have died.

While the US president would like more evidence to justify any military action – and would prefer to have United Nations support – neither seems likely in the near term.

The UN has a team of chemical weapons inspectors in Syria, but the UN does not have Syrian government permission to enter the area of the alleged attack this week. And the UN is concerned about sending its team into an active war zone.

Foreign Policy reports that Kevin Kennedy, a retired U.S. Marine colonel who heads the U.N. Department of Safety and Security, told a small group of reporters at U.N. headquarters on Friday:

"It's an active war zone in Damascus," said Kennedy, who has gained extensive experience managing U.N. humanitarian operations in the world's deadliest trouble spots over the past 20 years. "I was there a few months ago: you hear every day impacts, shells, there might be 10 in a day, you might hear 80 in a day. You can see airstrikes, you can see artillery. You get shot at, I was only there for 3 and ½ days as a visitor and my car was shot, we were shot at twice," including once by an unidentified sniper.

If the US decides to take military action, it isn't likely to get UN Security Council approval. Most analysts say that Syria's allies, Russia and China, would likely object as they did earlier this week when the UN Security Council tried to issue a statement that called on the UN to “urgently investigate” the chemical weapons attack Wednesday.

One US military option getting some attention now is the Kosovo air war model of intervention. In 1999, President Bill Clinton, in a somewhat similar situation – without UN Security Council backing – decided not to put any US boots on the ground, but ordered airstrikes.  The New York Times reports that the Obama administration is looking at the Kosovo precedent.

"Kosovo is an obvious precedent for Mr. Obama because, as in Syria, civilians were killed and Russia had longstanding ties to the government authorities accused of the abuses. In 1999, President Bill Clinton used the endorsement of NATO and the rationale of protecting a vulnerable population to justify 78 days of airstrikes."

In Foreign Policy, Kosovo's foreign minister Enver Hoxhaj also makes the case for a Kosovo-style air war in Syria:

"The NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999 serves as a model for our allies in the West and the Arab world to end Syrian suffering. Back then, humanitarian intervention by the international community not only brought an end to ethnic cleaning, but it also showed that the classical idea of state sovereignty cannot be used as a shield to justify repressive policies and crimes against humanity.

The intervention in Kosovo also affirmed that, even without the mandate of the U.N. Security Council, countries should act to prevent regimes from abusing human rights. As a country that today enjoys freedom and democracy thanks to NATO action, we are strong supporters of the idea that sovereignty is not a right, but a responsibility. Speaking from experience, the time has come for the international community to offer protection to the people of Syria."

Even as the US considers military options, Syrian officials have responded by providing "evidence" that the chemical weapons attacks Wednesday were a last-ditch effort by Syrian rebel forces to hold the outskirts of Damascus. Syrian state TV broadcast images of plastic jugs, gas masks, vials of an unspecified medication, explosives and other items that it said were seized from rebel hideouts. It did not, however, show any video of soldiers reportedly affected by toxic gas in the fighting in the Jobar neighborhood of Damascus, according to the Associated Press.

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