WASHINGTON - 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.
point, the nature of that response is a mystery to no one.
A fifth US
Navy destroyer with 300 Marines on board joined four warships positioned in the
Eastern Mediterranean, "ready to go," according to US Defense Secretary Chuck
Hagel, should the president give the order. On Saturday defense officials said that a sixth destroyer had joined the five already in the Mediterranean as a precaution.
"It is not in the national
security interest of the United States to ignore clear violations of these kinds
of international norms," Obama said on Friday. "A lot of people think something
should be done, but nobody wants to do it."
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
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
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, as Britain'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
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.
The article mostly quotes
retired military officials, but supports sources of The Jerusalem Post who claim
that the president experienced "pushback" on the possible use of force last
“There’s a broad naivete in the political class about
America’s obligations in foreign policy issues, and scary simplicity about the
effects that employing American military power can achieve,” retired Lieutenant
General Gregory S. Newbold told The Washington Post, noting that his
contemporaries are "alarmed" by the plan.
Then, on Friday, as Kerry and
Obama continued making their case for humanitarian intervention and the
protection of international standards of decency, a new Reuters/Ipsos poll
suggested that a majority of Americans still oppose any military involvement in
the Syrian crisis. The numbers have shifted, however; 53 oppose intervention
now, down from 60 percent a week ago, and 20 percent are now in favor, up from 9
The White House plan seems to be backfiring: instead of
growing an international consensus and a broad military coalition, the
administration is instead facing mounting pressure and tougher questions the
more time passes from that fateful day in Ghouta, when over a thousand civilians
were killed in the dead of night by weapons that leave no flesh
Crisis in Syria - full JPost.com coverage
Obama has already managed to coalesce Turkey, Jordan, Australia,
Canada, Germany and the Arab League into agreement that the Assad regime is
culpable for the attack, and that his use of chemical weapons on a mass scale
demands a strong international response. But the likelihood that any of those
nations will join a military effort is unlikely, save for perhaps Turkey, whose
leader has been highly critical of Assad throughout the war.
"We are not
alone in our condemnation, and we are not alone in our will to do something
about it and to act," Kerry said on Friday.
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
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.
A week later,
the US will mark the twelfth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.