WASHINGTON – The United States has gone beyond gunboat diplomacy in its preparations for military intervention in the Syrian conflict.
With allies Britain and France, the US has now concluded with “little doubt” that chemical weapons were used by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad against civilians on a mass scale in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta last week, killing over 1,000, including many children.
The resulting escalation in rhetoric from Western powers has been swift and dramatic.
An appetite now exists for action within the White House that did not exist before. And with virtually no dissenting voices in the US Congress from either party, President Barack Obama looks poised to order a strike within the coming days.
Anything short of military action, at this point, might prove more politically costly than any negative consequences resulting from a strike that will inevitably be held against the president.
“They haven’t crossed the Rubicon, but they’re in the boats,” says Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “They’re clearing away all the obstacles to military action. The question now is what scale it is going to be.”
A red line has been drawn by British leader David Cameron – and repeated by his foreign minister, William Hague – framing military action in a context much larger than the entrenched and devastating conflict unfolding in Syria itself.
Action is required from the international community, they say, to send an historic message to the world that the use of weapons of mass destruction will not be tolerated in this day and age.
Photos and video of dead children piled next to one another have been running on broadcast stations worldwide, as have the ensuing threats from 10 Downing Street and the White House.
The Obama administration’s actions – including its quick dismissal of Syria’s decision to grant access to a UN investigation team already on the ground into the site of Wednesday’s attack – strongly implies that a decision to strike may have already been made.
With such a loud and consistent drumbeat, a lack of action could be seen as an acquiescence to demands from Russia, Iran and Assad himself, who are together warning that Western action would inflame the entire Middle East.
Those threats might only embolden the allies, whose leaders see legal justification in strong action rooted in, among other interests, a moral imperative.
"This is about the large-scale, indiscriminate use of weapons that the civilized world, long ago, decided must never be used at all," a visibly angry Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday.
The secretary's comments were intended to make a moral case for intervention, should the president choose to move forward in the coming days, a US official told The Jerusalem Post.
"Make no mistake," Kerry warned. "President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world's most heinous weapons against the world's most vulnerable people. Nothing today is more serious, and nothing is receiving more serious scrutiny."