Will they or won’t they? That question is likely to be decided this week. The international community has rarely been this divided over whether or not punitive military strikes on a sovereign nation is the right thing to do. The pro-camp — the US, Canada, France and Turkey and some Arab countries — believe the Assad regime unleashed chemical weapons on its own people and must be punished as a deterrent, not only to Syria but also to other states, known to have WMD in their arsenal, such as Iran and North Korea.
The anti-camp — Russia, China, India, Brazil, Indonesia — remain unconvinced that there is sufficient evidence as to which side launched the poisons while claiming unilateral military action without a United Nations resolution would be illegal. In this case, Rudyard Kipling was right when he wrote, “East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet”.
President Obama insists that strikes will be limited to military targets, their duration short. He says such an attack is not designed to effect regime change, but only to degrade Assad’s military capabilities. Senator John McCain supports him provided he ensures the regime’s battlefield gains are “rolled back”. A year ago, Obama warned that use of chemicals weapons would cross his own red lines; but now he maintains that the world’s red lines have been crossed; a point on which the majority of European nations agree, even though, until now, they’ve little appetite to join the fray.
They might, indeed, be the world’s red lines because much of the planet has signed-up to chemical weapons conventions, but, in reality, Obama’s head is on the chopping block if things go awry. Arguably, if he had acted swiftly and determinedly some weeks ago — as was his prerogative as commander-in-chief - the situation would have been far less complex. Critics say he’s permitted Assad time to sprinkle his military assets around populated centers, which may demand a more protracted series of attacks involving the use of B-2 and B-52 long-range bombers. Moreover, the world and its wife have been given a say in his decision-making — and, the time of writing, US public opinion isn’t going his way.
Put simply, the majority of Americans are war-weary and skeptical when it comes to the administration’s arguments; they feel they were duped over Iraq War pretexts and no longer trust the guys at the top. Lawmakers report having received thousands of emails and phone calls urging them to vote “no”. Obama has asked them to put their country’s global standing before their personal political ambitions; in the coming days we’ll know whether the majority has heeded that plea or chosen to listen to their constituents.
Obama knows only too well that getting Congressional authorization is no done deal, which is why he and top administration officials are engaged in a media blitz to get their message across. On Monday, the president did the rounds of US television talk shows and on Tuesday evening, he will make a televised address to the nation. He will need to muster all his powers of persuasion. As of Sunday, according to a USA Today network survey of Senators and Representatives, out of a total of 533 lawmakers only 22 Senators and 22 House members say they’ll support the use of force. In a bid to appeal to heartstrings, the administration has released hitherto classified video of the alleged chemical attack’s shocking aftermath into the public domain while stressing that over 400 Syrian children were victims of this “moral obscenity”.
So what happens if Congress says “nay”? Will Obama go ahead anyway? He’s not saying, which is why Republican Senator Rand Paul demands an amendment to the Senate motion making the decision of Congress binding on the White House. However, it’s not only Republicans that Obama must win-over there are also many dissenters within his own party. In the event the president is unable to procure the blessing of Congress, he will be faced with arguably the biggest dilemma of his life. Should he give the green light to attack Syria over Congressional objections, he might be vindicated if all goes to plan and the US is seen to emerge unscathed and triumphant; if not, he will need mighty shoulders to absorb an avalanche of blame. However, should he decide to bin the idea, America’s credibility will be undermined along with his own.
It’s important to recognize that Obama does not claim that strikes on Syria will be a cure-all for the country’s woes; they are strictly related to the regime’s chemical weapons use, an aberration that must be answered decisively to prevent such heinous weapons being used on the battlefields of the future.
There is one point on which both Obama and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin agree. The only solution to ending the two-and-a-half year long Syrian civil war is political. Geneva II must be realized. The millions of Syrian refugees and displaced families living under canvas and surviving on handouts just want to go home. Once Assad receives his medicine — if, indeed, he does — world leaders must come together to ensure Syria regains the peace and stability this most ancient land, whose capital is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, sorely deserves.