Is a US Attack on Syria now Inevitable?
The tone of the White House changed over the weekend.
It is now much harsher towards the Syrian government – more certain that the deaths last week were caused by a chemical weapons attack and that it was carried out by President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
A statement derided the idea of the inspectors being allowed in now, suggesting shelling had already destroyed the evidence.
Doubtless, there will be similarly pointed words about the shooting at the inspectors as they attempted to begin an investigation.
US President Barack Obama was given a range of military options and spoke to the leaders of his key military allies, Britain and France.
Three US warships are in the region and another is heading there. Many in Congress are calling for them to carry out a limited cruise missile strike.
It all seems to point in one direction.
Repeating Iraq mistakes?
The British newspapers are suggesting there will be a strike this week.
I cannot help remembering a brilliant, defunct comedy series The Day Today, which showed a TV studio being transformed into a “war desk” with alarms screaming, red lights flashing, machinery rapidly swinging into place and lights dimming dramatically.
It captured exactly the way some in my business get over-excited by the possibility of conflict.
I have been stressing President Obama’s caution and reluctance to take action. But now it does seems difficult for him to back down without losing face. Unless something changes.
One thing has long puzzled me.
While a government using chemical weapons against its own people is an affront that may demand international action, it seems obvious that a far greater horror from the US point of view is those weapons being used against its own people or allies.
The great fear since the 9/11 attacks has been such weapons falling into the hands of those the West regards as terrorists.
Given that one of the main opposition groups in Syria has formally declared allegiance to al-Qaeda, that must be a real possibility.
It would seem to me to be a core US interest to secure those weapons and put them beyond use. But I have seen very little discussion of such an option.
Remember, too, that American and Russian diplomats are heading for the Netherlands toplan peace talks. What might not enhance their chances of success is a US attack. But threats might.
While President Obama may not take much notice of Russian warnings, their central sentiment may strike a chord – the Russians say if the US goes to war it will be repeating the mistakes of former President George W Bush in Iraq.
That danger surely looms large in President Obama’s mind.
The American military has consistently warned Syria is a hard nut to crack. It is not Libya, and its sophisticated air defences would take a lot of effort and commitment to overcome.
It would be surprising if President Obama took action without trying to obtain the maximum possible international backing, and that probably means giving the UN route more time.
I may be wrong: the red lights could soon be flashing and the war desk swinging into action. But while the rattling may be loud, the sabre has not yet been drawn.
‘Chemical attack’: What we know
- 01:15: 21 August (10:15 GMT 20 Aug): Facebook pages of Syrian opposition report heavy fighting in rebel-held districts of Ghouta, the agricultural belt in eastern Damascus
- 02:45: Opposition posts Facebook report of “chemical shelling” in Ein Tarma area of Ghouta
- 02:47: Second opposition report says chemical weapons used in Zamalka area of Ghouta
- Unverified video footage shows people being treated on pavements in the dark and in a makeshift hospital
- Reports say chemical weapons were used in Ghouta towns of Irbin, Jobar, Zamalka and Ein Tarma as well as in Muadhamiya to the west, but this is not confirmed
- Syrian government acknowledges military offensive in the Ghouta area but denies chemical weapons use
How should the US react to a “moral obscenity” in Syria?
US Secretary of State John Kerry has denounced the Syrian government for attacking its own people with chemical weapons in a highly-charged, emotional, statement.
He appeared to be preparing the ground for military action, while giving away no details of what will be done.
Mr Kerry said what happened was a moral obscenity that should shock the world and offend “our basic sense of humanity”.
What else do we learn from his words?
The Obama administration does not need any further evidence that this was a chemical attack and that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was to blame.
Mr Kerry said the facts were “screaming” out from the pictures, common sense led to one conclusion, and that giving access to the inspectors came “too late to be credible”.
But he said that evidence had been collected and would be presented.
Anyone with queasy memories of “dossiers” before the Iraq War will realise that this will come under a lot of scrutiny.
The latest survey indicates 45% of Americas would back an attack on Syria if it had used chemical weapons, but there is still a job to be done persuading the public at home. Mr Kerry said Congress was being consulted.
China and Russia have both warned against an attack, which may mean the US intends to bypass the UN Security Council.
Certainly Mr Kerry did not mention the UN but it would be counter to Mr Obama’s instincts not to build wide international support for any action.
All that leaves the question of what will happen, and when.
Mr Kerry left no doubt that action would be taken – he said those who carried out heinous crimes had to be held accountable. He said the president would take “an informed decision” – the same curious formulation used in a Sunday’s statement from a White House official.
The administration has deliberately left itself almost no room for manoeuvre – its credibility would now be zero if it failed to take some form of military action.
But there is no sense of a time scale, the scope of any attack, or indeed the limits of its aims.
About Mark Mardell: Covered British politics from the fall of Thatcher to Blair’s last election victory as political correspondent, Newsnight Political editor, BBC Chief Political Correspondent and diarist for This Week.
August 26, 2013