What Obama risks if Congress gives backing for Syria attack

More and more voices are agreed: the ‘narrow, limited operation' proposed by Obama simply won't work

Column LAST UPDATED AT 09:01 ON Mon 2 Sep 2013

PRESIDENT Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry now seem to be playing a soft cop/hard cop routine in trying to persuade opinion in Congress, middle America and the rest of the world about the need to strike the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons.

Kerry told television interviewers on Sunday that the US now has hard proof from sources independent of the UN inspection team that Syrian forces used the nerve agent sarin in the 21 August bombardment of the Ghouta neighbourhood of Damascus. It was necessary, therefore, to send a message to countries like Iran and North Korea that they shouldn't build weapons of mass destruction.

Obama had taken all by surprise on Saturday by saying Congress was to be consulted about strikes on Syria when it gets back to business next week. Significantly, he hadn't warned either Kerry or Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel that he had decided to consult the lawmakers before ordering US forces into action.

Meanwhile over the weekend British naval and air force units were being ordered to stand down and return to normal duties. They had been ordered by David Cameron well ahead of last Thursday's Commons debate to ready themselves for strikes on Syria. Clearly the assumption was that the attacks would take place over this past weekend.

Like Kerry, Cameron and President Francois Hollande of France have also been playing hard cop to Obama's soft cop. But even that picture is changing. With French opinion polls showing a majority - at about 60 per cent - against military action, the French legislature is to be consulted now. Despite Kerry declaring that the US had the full support of its "oldest ally” France, in Paris interior minister Manuel Valls stated bluntly: "France cannot go it alone, and we need a coalition.”

Turkey is the only Nato ally so far to declare openly that it wants action to promote regime change in Damascus. Even Jordan, the most vulnerable and affected neighbour in the current flow of refugees from Syria, has ruled out joining an armed operation against the Assad regime.

The mood swing across the Western alliance, meaning principally Nato's leading military allies, is that the idea of "a narrow, limited operation” in Obama's formulation simply doesn't work. Some remarkable, and unexpected, voices have been warning us of this - including former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, architect of the ill-fated incursion into Iraq, and Sen John McCain, who came out of a classified intelligence briefing at the weekend sceptical about Obama's stragegy, despite having previously urged an attack.

"Once you start down this road, you can't get off it and maintain political credibility,” warned the veteran diplomat Ryan Crocker, who has been US ambassador in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. "We are pretty ignorant about Syria,” he told the New York Times, adding that punitive missile raids rarely, almost never, work.

In 1998, for instance, Bill Clinton ordered Tomahawk strikes against sites in Sudan and Afghanistan following the bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania by al-Qaeda. One of the missiles went to Pakistan by mistake, others hit a perfume factory in Khartoum, and Osama bin Laden and his clique escaped.

Professor Farwaz Gerges, who heads the Institute for the Middle East at the LSE, told the BBC that he believes the leaders of the western alliance hadn't thought out the second and third level of consequences of a US strike. Not only would a US strike lengthen the civil war in Syria, it would tip the hand towards the most violent and active rebel cohorts loyal to the al-Qaeda cause. Some of these are already using Syria to mount a major offensive into Iraq - where more than 500 have been killed in bombing attacks in under a month.

Any widening conflict is likely to involve Israel and Iran, Syria's principal ally in the region - and the Shia-Sunni contest would enhance and encourage al-Qaeda activities in Yemen, Egypt and beyond. All in all, intervention poses the real prospect of the biggest Middle East conflict yet.

One of the most puzzling aspects of Obama's thinking is that so little has been said about diplomacy offering a way to negotiations. With the newly elected President Ruhani of Iran offering to talk about his country's nuclear programme, there seems a new opportunity. Any US-led raid on Assad forces would slam that door shut. America would become a combatant in Syria's civil war - and would not be able to get out of it any time soon. · 

Disqus - noscript

Dumb and dumber,is there no western "leader" with a brain and a small amount of common sense,public opinion everywhere is against any military action.Has the US not learned anything from Afghanistan,if the rebels win they will butcher millions and install sharia law on a multi-cultural society.Cameron should also realise that if he joins the coalition ,any slight chance of 're-election will be gone.

The gassing was a false flag attack supplied and engineered by the CIA and carried out by the Islamic terrorists who started the war to over throw the last secular leader in the Middle East and are losing it. Kerry and Obama need to keep up the pretense that it was a Syrian army attack to hide their own complicity in the gassing.

I want to know why the West is set to intercede on the side of Al qaeeda? It seems clear to me that the obvious off shoot of the CIA/ SAS ' Arab Spring was that Terrorists would take advantage of the chaos.

Islamic fanatics see America clearing their path to power in Syria as America did with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

I don't believe Assad used poison gas. It is an old trick used by Palestininians in Gaza to put a rocket launcher on a nursery, fire, take the launcher and run, and then curse Israel for killing children.

For the same people to fire poison gas and kill Syrians so as to claim it was Assad is so in their character...who would use Poison gas when the inspectors are on spot?

It is astonishing that it has taken so long for the "West" to pause and reflect. Yes, of course Rumsfeld and McCain are now having second thoughts - it should have been manifestly obvious to these individuals that there is too close a parallel between this "intelligence" and the "indisputable" evidence of weapons of mass destruction purportedly held by Saddam Hussein.

That evidence was found to be entirely non-existent and, it is now very likely that this recent "evidence", touted around so confidently by Kerry, Hague, Cameron, Hollande et al is just as flawed and bogus.

Rightly or wrongly we are now very wary of such confident assertions of "indisputable facts" and "concrete evidence" to support the case for limited intervention in Syria.

Regardless of the final facts, if they every emerge - it is sheer madness to embark on a military mission of any sort into Syria - very quickly the flames would spread beyond Syria's own borders in much more dangerous a fashion than that of 2 million refugees.

We are witnessing not so much a civil war, confined, on the face of it, to Syria - instead we are witnessing the bitter rivalry between Sunni and Shia muslims - like naive idiots we in the "West" have allowed ourselves to become embroiled in this centuries - old rivalry; we should let the Saudis and other Sunnis get on with it, while the Iranian Shias can look after themselves in the region, I have no doubt.

The outcome and knock-on repercussions of military intervention cannot even be guessed at - other than that absolute chaos and mayhem would result - culminating in, perhaps, a direct confrontation between Iran, Russia and Syria on the one hand and a naive and over-optimistic "West" on the other hand.

We should have no part in it - despite Mrs Cameron's hand-wringing and badgering of her husband "to do something"!

Thus far, the undoubted winner in all of this political muddle and farce has been the true democratic process - after all, isn't that what "Democracy" is all about - to reflect the will of the majority?

Ah this war mongering by the yanks is SO familiar. Reminds me of AGENT ORANGE in Vietnam.

Palestinians are not Al Quaeda, pal. They are the victims of an unlawful occupation.

I don't see that the west has any business intervening in Syria either, but I doubt that there is any character flaw common to the people of the Middle East which drives them to slaughter each other, in ever more horrific ways, to gain the sympathy of the United States.

you shouldn't trust anything the americans say until it has been double checked . they accuse syria of killing 1400 people with chemicals supplied by the UK and how can you trust someone who killed 3000 of their own people (9/11)
and blamed it on terrorists for their own gain .these people are scum and should not be trussed . funny how the UK or any other country did diddly squat . time some one put the USA in its place