Sunday, September 8, 2013

President Obama seeks Congressional approval to attack Syria


September 8th., 2013
M. Serajul Islam

At present the buzzword in Washington and the United States is Syria. The President has been under great pressure to attack Syria after irrefutable proof surfaced from US intelligence that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons against its own people on August 21. The United States had delayed intervening in Syria since the civil war started there nearly 3 years that has so far killed over 100,000 (UN estimate till June 2013) and made millions refugees on the argument that without proof of use of chemical weapons, it would not have the legitimate reason to attack Syria. President Obama had called the proof of use of chemical weapon as “The Red Line” to attack Syria.

Nevertheless, President Obama chose to seek approval of the Congress that has delayed the US attack. At the same time, he also turned to allies to build an international coalition that has so fair been unsuccessful. Tony Blair as Britain’s Prime Minister had unquestionably supported the US President George Bush when he decided to attack Iraq. This time the British Parliament denied his successor David Cameron permission to attack Syria. France was also not enthusiastic after Britain opted out. The Swedish Prime Minister declined the US request made by President Obama while on a visit to Sweden immediately after Senate started to consider the President’s request to attack Syria. European’s are currently going through strained relations with the United States on the issue of clandestine surveillance of European countries by US intelligence.

The Russians have emerged as another formidable obstacle to an imminent US attack of Syria. In what reminded many of the former Soviet Union, the Russia moved its fleet into the region as a warning to the United States against unilateral action in Syria. President Putin stated unequivocally that any strike without UN approval would be “an aggression” and that such an UN approval must come only after it was established “beyond doubt” that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons. Russia and the United States too are also going through a period of strained relations over a host of issues notably over the issue of Russia’s soft pedaling of the Snowden case. Edward Snowden, accused by USA of treason for divulging national secrets, has been given sanctuary by Russia ignoring US’ request to extradite him.

At the time of filing this write-up, the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee passed a resolution 10-7 that would allow the President to order limited strikes on Syrian soil but without committing any ground troops. The resolution also set more limitations. The strikes would be up to 60 days after which the president could seek extension for an additional 30 days. The resolution would also allow “a small rescue mission in the event of an emergency”. The full Senate was expected to pass the resolution but the chances of the GOP controlled House giving the green signal to the president for a limited strike on Syria “are looking progressively dimmer for the Obama administration.”

The President’s men — Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and General Martin Dempsey, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff -- were able to make the case that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons that killed 1426 opponents of the regime. Nevertheless, the way they were grilled established that the Congress’ approval to attack Syria would not be an open and shut case. The Senators sought assurances on a number of concerns now in the minds of most Americans. First, the United States would not be stuck in Syria. Second, the Asaad regime would be sufficiently degraded by the attack. Third, Al Qaeda elements would not be among the opposition to the Syrian regime. Finally, “collateral damages” would be at a minimum. The president’s men were not really able to answers these concerns convincingly.

As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton used the Al Qaeda argument to deflect strong pressures on President Obama’s first administration to intervene in Syria against the regime of Bashar al Asaad and in favour of the groups fighting the regime. In making the case for the limited strike on Syria, Secretary Kerry and his colleagues avoided the issue that left many Americans unconvinced about the need to attack Syria in haste. In fact, they argued their case on the need to attack Syria and stressed that the United States could wait no longer after the Syrian regime was exposed clearly to have crossed the Red line.

In Europe, the president gave a new spin to the Red Line that many thought was out of his frustration and weakened the case to attack Syria. He said the world’s credibility was at stake and not United State’s. He strongly refuted that he had set the Red Line. The President said: “I didn’t set a red line; the world set a red line.” President Obama was referring to the fact that the international community by signing the treaty against use of chemical weapons was as much under treaty obligations to put down the Syrian regime as the United States. However, President Obama’s interpretation on the Red Line drew sharp reaction and criticism from conservatives in his country.

The chances of limited US attack on Syria is now on the declining curve compared to what was the situation perhaps a week or so ago. Ironically, President Obama finds himself in a position similar to that of his predecessor “a largely isolated U.S., minus many of its key allies and against the will of other countries and of the United Nations, into armed conflict in the Middle East.” The only incentive for the Obama administration currently is the feeling among many Americans that US would need to intervene in Syria in order to uphold its position in the world. That incentive would only wane in the days ahead unless the president would be able to shore up international support on the Red Line and get a clear and unequivocal nod from the Congress that it is behind the White House on its Syrian initiative.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador.

No comments: