When world powers control destinies: Syria, Obama & the US Congress

Bassem Aly , Monday 2 Sep 2013

One week remains before the US Congress discusses giving the green-light to President Obama's proposed military strike against Damascus, leaving Syria's fate uncertain

The Syrian Crisis
Allison Nieuwsma of Boston, right, stands with other opponents of U.S. military action in Syria at New York's Times Square on Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013 (Photo: AP)

In a press briefing that caught the attention of the whole world, US President Barack Obama announced on Saturday his willingness to seek the approval of Congress before starting a “limited and narrow” military intervention in Syria.

It had been anticipated that Syria would be hit this week, a scenario that proved impossible because Congresspeople will not return from their summer break until 9 September.

The White House has already sent a draft resolution to Congress on the issue in order to “deter, disrupt, prevent and degrade” the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad from using chemical weapons to kill civilians.

But since Obama believes that “what message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price,” the rationale beyond involving Congress looks unnecessary, as he can unilaterally go to war as commander in chief.

Only a series of regional and international calculations explains the situation.

Syria’s ball in Congressional hands

Over the past week, US Navy moved warships into the eastern Mediterranean as US officials continued to weigh their political alternatives.

International confusion over when a military operation against Syria would begin was probably caused, to a great extent, by French President Francois Hollande, Obama’s only potential ally in the coming war.

Hollande declared last Friday that the military strikes would begin by Wednesday, but he rejected any moves ahead of the departure of UN inspectors from Syria who were probing the alleged chemical attacks.

The UN team left on Saturday after collecting samples from alleged chemical strikes outside Damascus, the same day as Obama’s surprising statement.

The next day, Secretary of State John Kerry called on his ex-colleagues in Congress to approve strikes against Al-Assad.

He told US TV channels that signs of powerful sarin nerve gas were evident after the United States was "given independently" hair and blood samples from emergency workers who rushed to the scene of the attack that killed more than 1,300 Syrians.

"Each day that goes by, this case is even stronger. We know that the regime ordered this attack. We know they prepared for it. We know where the rockets came from," Kerry told CNN.

Majid Rafizadeh, a member of Harvard International Review’s advisory board, said Congress would likely approve the intervention since Republicans (233 members) have a majority in the House of Representatives. Yet, he argued that other considerations should be kept in mind.

"I believe Obama's political calculation has changed and he is less likely to go into the war now as his closest European allies have announced that they will not join the United States in military action against Syria," Rafizadeh stated.

Obama will probably face an easier battle in the Senate controlled by his Democratic Party, along with the support of leading Republican Senators, such as John McCain, who want the war to go further and remove Al-Assad from power to end the three-year war in which more than 100,000 people lost their lives.

Moreover, Obama will present his case to global leaders next week during the G20 summit in Russia - Al-Assad's staunchest supporter- a point that was praised by UN chief Ban Ki-moon, who said Obama was exerting an effort to achieve a broad-based international consensus on measures against Syria.

Who backs the US?

Only Paris. Other governments do not seem encouraged to join the strike.

The biggest blow came from the British House of Common on Friday, when it defeated a motion presented by the coalition government by 285-272 after fierce resistance from the opposition Labour Party led by Ed Miliband.

Prime Minister David Cameron vowed to respect the "will" of Parliament despite his belief in "the need for a tough response to the use of chemical weapons."

Taking the same path, Germany ruled out participation in the strikes, stressing its endeavours to push for the UN Security Council "to find a common position" and calling on UN inspectors to finish their work "as quickly as possible."

"There is now a very feeble 'coalition of the willing', since Britain, America’s closest ally, opted out, Italy and Germany are also not willing to be involved, the Arab League was very cautious and even Canada, under die-hard neocon PM Stephen Harper, decided not to go," Karim Bitar, a Middle East expert at the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Relations, said.

Bitar mentions that 65 percent of French people reject the war, as well as many prominent right- and left-wing politicians.

"Given this isolation, going to war without congressional authorisation could have backfired and Obama is very cautious. He needs bipartisan support. And he did not forget that he was elected to put an end to two long, expensive and useless Middle East wars that severely damaged US credibility and its finances," he emphasised.

Opposition sources told Reuters on Thursday that Al-Assad’s forces had removed several Scud missiles, along with dozens of launchers, from a base north of Damascus in a bid to safeguard the weapons from foreign strikes.

Obama took a step backward

The most interesting part of the story lies in the reactions of the Syrian government and opposition.

Syrian Minister for Reconciliation Ali Haidar told AP: "In other words, he wants to keep brandishing the sword of aggression on Syria without fully giving up the idea of an attack and even without setting a definite date for the aggression." 

Contrarily, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the main anti-regime body, expressed "disappointment," but added that it believed Congress would back military action.

The Arab League passed a resolution on Sunday urging the international community to "take the deterrent and necessary measures against the culprits of this crime that the Syrian regime bears responsibility for."

The Pan-Arab organisation meeting held on a foreign ministerial level and attended by SNC president Ahmed Jabra, said those responsible for the attack should face trial as "war criminals."

Obama knowns there is no military solution to the Syrian crisis, said Bitar.

"The US is no longer the Deus Ex Machina that can single-handedly take on all the world's problems. There are limits to US influence, and they are not only related to Obama's dithering, as some pundits would have us believe, but first and foremost to his predecessor's strategic blunders," he concluded.

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