US, British lawmakers try to slow the march toward Syria strike

US and British lawmakers, stunned by the speed at which their leaders rallied for a Syria strike, demanded a say in decisions on intervention.

Matt Dunham/AP
Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street in London, to be driven to the Houses of Parliament for a debate and vote on Syria, Thursday. Britain's opposition Labour Party has indicated it may not support even a watered down version of a government resolution on Syria.

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This week’s drumbeat toward Western action in response to Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons is slowing its tempo as politicians in Britain and the US demand a say in how the countries respond.

After days of headlines like, “US and Allies Prepare for Action in Syria,” “Military strikes on Syria 'as early as Thursday,' US officials say,” and “US military "ready" to attack Syria, Hagel says,” the international community may be hedging its bets.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, who earlier this week seemed on track to call for military action, guaranteed legislators two rounds of voting on the topic. The first vote will be on the “principle” of military intervention, and the second will come after the United Nations inspectors release their chemical weapons report, according to the BBC. 

The Associated Press reports that Britain’s “Labour leader Ed Miliband said Thursday he is unwilling to give Prime Minister David Cameron a 'blank check' for conducting possible future military operations against Syria.”

In the US yesterday, “a day of stalled diplomacy … suggested any military strikes could be delayed,” according to The Wall Street Journal. President Obama “cautioned that he hasn't yet decided whether to launch an attack.” The statement, made in an interview with PBS, came after 116 lawmakers wrote a letter to the president “demanding he seek congressional authorization for a military strike.”

Mr. Obama's comments capped a day in which the US and British push to gain approval for military strikes appeared to meet with resistance and possible delays. They also appeared to moderate US officials' earlier signals that an attack could be mounted "in coming days" in response to what they call clear-cut indications that Syria used chemical weapons in attacks around Damascus early on Aug. 21. Activists and residents say more than 1,000 people died in the attacks.

It was not only national politicians stepping in to say “wait.” The United Nations Security Council yesterday closed a “tense” meeting without going to a vote on a British-proposed resolution calling for intervention in Syria, according to a separate AP report.

“US Ambassador Samantha Power criticized the Russians and Chinese in a series of Twitter messages Wednesday afternoon, saying their refusal to back the British draft was their latest effort to block action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad," AP reports. 

Meanwhile, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon “called for restraint” while speaking at the 100-year anniversary of The Hague yesterday, reports The Christian Science Monitor.

Mr. Ban said the images in the area where chemical weapons were allegedly used in Syria “were ‘unlike any we have seen in the 21st century’ but urged a peaceful, diplomatic solution and called upon the divided UN Security Council not to go 'missing in action'."

"Here in the Peace Palace, let us say: Give peace a chance. Give diplomacy a chance. Stop fighting and start talking," Ban said.

Some have suggested Obama’s choice of words last year – calling chemical weapon-use in Syria a “red line” that, if crossed, would call for intervention – may have played into the aggressive talk of military action that took place after news broke last week of suspected chemical weapons use.

“President Obama is hemmed in by his own rhetoric in a way that many, back in 2008, would have associated with Bush rather than the man who won the Nobel Peace Prize based mostly on the quality of his words rather than his accomplishments,” writes Slate.

As the president has weighed military action, talk of a moral response to the atrocity has been clouded by a discussion of how America's reputation would suffer if Obama did not act. A year ago, Obama said Syria's use of chemical weapons would cross a "red line." If you read his entire answer, Obama tries to dilute his comment almost immediately. He says his "calculus" and his “equation” would change, words that are meant to give him room to move. He didn’t want to box himself into a military-only response. But when you use terms like "red line," it tends to make people not listen to the rest of the sentence. That's why you use the term in the first place. 

The Monitor’s Dan Murphy questions why chemical weapons – given all the other atrocities going on in Syria – were viewed as a potential tipping point in the first place.

The alleged number of dead from the alleged chemical attack is about 350 people – less than 0.35 percent of the total number deaths in the Syrian war, which is now well over 100,000. In over two years of fighting children have been tortured to death, area fire weapons like mortars and rockets have rained down on crowded civilian neighborhoods (a war crime), suicide bombs from rebels have killed civilians and soldiers alike on the streets of Damascus (ditto), and both sides have executed captives with a liberal hand.

If the immorality of a weapon lies in its capacity to kill, then the humble assault rifle or machete are far more immoral instruments of death. Yes, theoretically chemical weapons could kill far more in a short period of time, but that hasn't been the track record.

Whether or not Western powers intervene may also rest on the legality of involvement. Syria’s use of chemical weapons is not in violation of international law, according to Ian Hurd, an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University in an op-ed for The New York Times.

Syria is a party to neither the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972 nor the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, and even if it were, the treaties rely on the United Nations Security Council to enforce them — a major flaw. Syria is a party to the Geneva Protocol, a 1925 treaty that bans the use of toxic gases in wars. But this treaty was designed after World War I with international war in mind, not internal conflicts.

What about the claim that, treaties aside, chemical weapons are inherently prohibited? While some acts — genocide, slavery and piracy — are considered unlawful regardless of treaties, chemical weapons are not yet in this category. As many as 10 countries have stocks of chemical weapons today, with the largest held by Russia and by the United States.

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