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
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.