Speaking on Friday from the White House,US President Barack Obama said he still hadn't made a final decision on whether or not to strike Syria. But the president made clear that a response, of some kind, is fast approaching.
At this point, the nature of that response is a mystery to no one.
Yet, after a week of strategic leaks from US government officials indicating that an allied strike against Syria was imminent, Obama's indecision or delay has already produced some unintended consequences for the White House.
Out of step with the cautious, incremental approach to foreign policy that has become his hallmark, the president dramatically charged Syrian President Bashar Assad last week with crossing an uncrossable American red line, deployed forces and shook alliances awake from a comfortable slumber on the Syrian crisis, now well into its third year.
The president's goal was to quickly build an international consensus that would not only condemn Syria's Assad for using chemical weapons on a massive scale on August 21 in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. He also wanted to build a formidable coalition that would join the US in a military strike, meant to send a principled message that the use of chemical weapons cannot be tolerated.
From the Treaty Room of the State Department on Friday,Secretary of State John Kerry laid out the case for action, presenting a declassified intelligence report and warning that inaction in and of itself was a fateful choice.
"This crime against conscience, this crime against humanity, this crime against the most fundamental principles of international community... this matters to us," Kerry said. "And it matters to who we are. And it matters to leadership and to our credibility in the world."
But that message first began eroding Thursday night, asBritain's Parliament shocked the White House by voting against joining a military strike. British leader David Cameron had already sent two warships to the Eastern Mediterranean and six fighter jets to Cyprus.
Following the vote in London, The Washington Post published an article Friday morning claiming rampant skepticism among top military brass at the Pentagon, worried that the Syria operation does not have clear aims and might aggravate the situation on the ground.
Obama faces a difficult timeline for a strike going forward, should he choose to proceed with French President Francois Hollande, who says his country remains committed to the cause of deterrence.
UN inspectors left Damascus on Friday, giving Obama four days to strike before he arrives in St. Petersburg, Russia, for the G20 Summit. He will travel to Sweden beforehand on Tuesday night. If he does not strike before then, the pressure to refrain from the summit's host, Vladimir Putin, could be extraordinary.
The military campaign could last for several days, officials say.
Next Wednesday also marks the high holy day of Rosh Hashanah on the Jewish calendar, which could complicate an attack due to threats from the Syrian and Iranian regimes to retaliate against Israel for any Western strike. Threatening a surprise attack, Syria's foreign minister this week invoked Arab tactics against Israel in the Yom Kippur War.
Washington’s statements threatening to use military force against Syria unilaterally are unacceptable, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in a statement.
Given the lack of evidence, any unilateral military action bypassing the UN Security Council – “no matter how limited it is” – would be a direct violation of international law and would undermine the prospects for a political and diplomatic solution to the conflict in Syria and will lead to a new round of confrontation and victims, Lukashevich concludes.
“Instead of executing the decisions of G8’s summit in Lough Erne and subsequent agreements to submit comprehensive report from experts investigating possible cases of use of chemical weapons in Syria to the UN Security Council, in the absence of any evidence, we hear threats of a strike on Syria,” the statement reads.
Lukashevich emphasizes that even “US allies” are calling to wait for the completion of the UN chemical expert group “in order to get an unbiased picture of what really happened and decide on further steps in terms of the Syrian crisis.”
Meanwhile, the United Nations Security Council may have to wait as long as two weeks before reviewing the final results of an analysis of samples taken from where chemical weapons were used in Syria, diplomats told Reuters on Friday. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon told representatives from China, Russia, the United States, Britain, and France, warning them of the time period on the eve of a possible US missile strike on the Syrian regime.
"The samples that have been collected will be taken to be analyzed in designated laboratories, and the intention of course is to expedite the analysis of that sampling that's been taken," said UN spokesman Martin Nesirky. “This is not an electoral process, where you have exit polls and preliminary results."
“The only result that counts is the result of the analysis in laboratories and the analysis of the evidence that's been collected through witness statements and so on," Nesirky explained, adding that UN inspectors would return later to investigate several other sites of alleged chemical weapon attacks.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon meanwhile briefed representatives from China, Russia, the United States, Britain, and France on the ongoing investigation in Syria. Although the envoys of the Security Council’s permanent members did not comment on the details, two diplomats told Reuters that analysis of the samples could take up to two weeks, according to Ban.
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