Obama faces tense decisions on Syria

2013-08-28 09:00
US President Barack Obama (File, AFP)

US President Barack Obama (File, AFP)

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Washington - The launch of a highly anticipated strike on Syria could make for awkward timing.

Few doubt that President Barack Obama is preparing for a US-led military action to retaliate for what the US and its allies say was a deadly chemical weapons attack perpetrated by the Syrian government. But there are few good options for when to attack.

Wednesday, for example, would make for an uncomfortable juxtaposition of themes. That's the day Obama will stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, paying tribute to Martin Luther King Jr on the 50th anniversary of the nonviolent leader's "I Have a Dream" speech.

Thursday is also problematic. That's when British Prime Minister David Cameron is set to convene an emergency meeting of Parliament, where lawmakers are expected to vote on a motion clearing the way for Britain to respond to the alleged chemical weapons attack.

Days later, Obama embarks on an overseas trip on Tuesday that will take him away from the White House for most of the week.

Would Obama really want to be running a military operation from Sweden? Or Russia, which vigorously opposes action against Syria?

Short window

Compounding the pressure, some lawmakers and allies are urging Obama to proceed slowly and seek UN Security Council approval, while others are imploring the president to act quickly and decisively.

After all, Obama's response earlier this year after the US first concluded that Syrian President Bashar Assad had used chemical weapons was criticised as too little, too late.

"The longer you wait, the less meaningful it becomes," said Barry Pavel, a former top national security official in the Bush and Obama administrations.

Lawmakers from both political parties have called on Obama to consult Congress before taking action - a step the White House says is now underway. Obama also is seeking buy-in from Western allies such as Britain and France, and from regional organisations like the 22-member Arab League, which has signalled its interest in justice for victims of the alleged chemical weapons attacks and blamed the Syrian regime.

But those consultations, too, limit the haste with which the US can act without going it alone.

Although Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel says the US military is in position to strike as soon as Obama gives the order, the administration has yet to release a promised intelligence report formally linking Assad to the attack. That report would provide a key rationale and underpinning for the administration's assertion that a game-changing response was warranted.

The report could be released as early as Wednesday, the same day as Obama's speech marking the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington.

A successful vote on Thursday in Britain's Parliament would mark the start of a short window that national security experts say could be the least-worst time for Obama to act. But a senior administration official said once Obama decides on what action to take, he won't delay the decision because of outside factors or competing events.

Obama, on Tuesday, will travel to Stockholm for his first visit as president to Sweden. The Northern European nation has claimed a position of neutrality in international conflicts for about 200 years.

Two days later, he heads to St Petersburg, Russia, for the Group of 20 economic summit with leading foreign counterparts. A major conference intended to focus on wonky issues like tax evasion and monetary policy could easily be subsumed by a military incursion in a Mideast hot spot embroiling the US and potentially other G-20 nations.

What's more, Russia, the host of the summit, is staunchly backing Assad and would be among the most vocal opponents of a military strike in Syria.

UN investigation

An American-led attack on Assad's forces while world leaders meet in Russia would be a major embarrassment for the Kremlin, and would deliver yet another blow to shaky relations between Russia and the US, already at a low point since the recent US decision to cancel a bilateral meeting between Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"The president has to be prepared for a lot of tension and a high degree of awkwardness," said Nikolas Gvosdev, a national security professor at the US Naval War College.

Despite the messy optics, Obama's foreign travel next week will not be a factor in his decision about when to act, said the administration official, who wasn't authorised to discuss internal deliberations publicly and requested anonymity.

The main factor in when an action starts will be how long it takes to get it off the ground once Obama makes the call. An increase in foreign assistance, for example, would take a while to ramp up, while a military action could be ordered right away.

There's precedent for Obama to take military action while outside the US. It was in Brazil in 2011 when Obama, on a five-day Latin America swing, authorised limited military action against Libya to counter Moammar Gaddafi's assault on his own people.

The pressure on Obama to act is amplified by his pledge last year that such a chemical weapons attack would cross a red line for the US. Activists say hundreds were killed in the Damascus suburbs on 21 August, leading US officials to contemplate that a response most likely would involve sea-launched cruise missile attacks on Syrian military targets.

Logistical and military considerations could also play a role in determining when the US and others take action. Military experts and US officials said strikes probably would come during the night, a strategy that could help minimise civilian causalities.

The US may also seek to wait until after the UN team in Syria investigating chemical weapons allegations has left the country. The team is scheduled to leave Syria in about a week, but the most recent purported chemical weapons attack has created the possibility that the team's two-week trip could be extended.

Read more on:    un  |  g20 summit  |  barack obama  |  vladimir putin  |  bashar assad  |  david cameron  |  us  |  syria  |  syria conflict

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