Paul Lewis and Spencer Ackerman in Washington
The Guardian, Thursday 29 August 2013
Barack Obama’s plans for air strikes against Syria were thrown into disarray on Thursday night after the British parliament unexpectedly rejected a motion designed to pave the way to authorising the UK’s participation in military action.
The White House was forced to consider the unpalatable option of taking unilateral action against the regime of Bashar al-Assad after the British prime minister, David Cameron, said UK would not now take part in any military action in response to a chemical attack in the suburbs of Damascus last week.
Although Britain’s support was not a prerequisite for US action, the Obama administration was left exposed without the backing of its most loyal ally, which has taken part in every major US military offensive in recent years.
Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for Obama’s national security council, indicated the administration would consider acting unliaterally. “The US will continue to consult with the UK government – one of our closest allies and friends. As we’ve said, President Obama’s decision-making will be guided by what is in the best interests of the United States.
“He believes that there are core interests at stake for the United States and that countries who violate international norms regarding chemical weapons need to be held accountable.”
The US appears to have taken British support for granted. Hours before the vote, the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, Diane Feinstein, expressed confidence that Britain would join any strike.
Feinstein, a Democrat and staunch administration ally, told Time magazine: “I think the UK makes a difference. I think if the president were to decide to go there’s a very high likelihood that the United Kingdom would be with us.”
The timing of the British vote, 272 to 285 against the government, was disastrous for Obama. Less than 30 minutes after the vote, senior intelligence officials began a conference call with key members of Congress, in an attempt to keep US lawmakers on side.
Congressional leaders and the chairs and ranking members of national security committees were briefed by the most senior US intelligence officials, amid signs that some of the support for military strikes against Syria was fading.
After the briefing, Carl Levin, the Democratic chairman of the Senate armed services committee, urged a cautious approach. “I have previously called for the United States to work with our friends and allies to increase the military pressure on the Assad regime by providing lethal aid to vetted elements of the Syrian opposition.
“Tonight, I suggested that we should do so while UN inspectors complete their work and while we seek international support for limited, targeted strikes in response to the Assad regime’s large-scale use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people.”
The UN has said more time should be given to diplomacy, and France, which earlier this week declared its support for taking action against Syria, is now calling for more time so UN inspections can be completed. A session of the United Nations security council in New York, called by Russia, broke up without agreement.
Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, instructed the 20-strong inspection team in Damascus to leave on Saturday, a day ahead of schedule. Ban also announced that the team would report to him immediately on departure, raising the possibility that the UN could issue an interim report on the 21 August chemical attacks that left hundreds of people dead.
The inspectors had not been due to deliver their findings for a week at least. The demand for a rushed early assessment reflects the fraught atmosphere at the UN triggered by US threats to launch punitive air strikes within days.
Shortly before Britain’s parliamentary vote, the New York Times quoted senior administration officials saying the US administration was prepared to launch strikes on Syria without a UN security council mandate or the support of allies such as Britain.
Earlier on Thursday, Joshua Earnest, the White House deputy spokesman, seemed to confirm that was a possibility when he was asked whether the US would “go it alone”. He repeatedly said it was in US “core national security interests” to enforce international chemical weapons norms. “The president of the United States is elected with the duty to protect the national security interests of America,” he said. Any strikes would be “discreet and limited”, he said.
However, Earnest also stressed the broad international support for the US position – backing that now appears to be dissipating. The Arab League has blamed Syria for the chemical attack, but stopped short of advocating punitive strikes by the US.
In recent days, Obama has spoken personally with leaders of France, Australia, Canada and Germany. But none were as important as Britain, a traditional ally during US military actions which has been lobbying behind the scenes for months for a tougher action on Syria.
Ken Pollack, a fellow from the Saban Centre for Middle East Policy, said that with continuing uncertainty over the intelligence picture, and no obvious legal mandate for military action, the US will be desperate to secure more international backing to argue that intervention is “legitimate”.
“If the administration can’t even count of the full-throated support of our closest ally, the country that stuck by us even during the worst days of Iraq, that legitimacy is going to be called into question,” he said.
Now that the UK parliament has rejected an attack on Syria, Washington’s space for planning one is likely to be constrained, particularly as the Obama administration prepares to release its intelligence tying Assad to the 21 August gas attack. An unclassified report is due to be published on Friday.
Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA Middle East analyst and Georgetown professor, said the loss of British support would lead to more “intense” scrutiny of the US case for action against Syria. “The UK is, in many important respects, the most important ally of the United States,” said Pillar. “This action by parliament is unquestionably significant in that regard.”
US readies possible solo action against Syria
AP White House Correspondent= WASHINGTON (AP) â President Barack Obama on Thursday prepared for the possibility of launching unilateral American military action against Syria within days as Britain opted out in a stunning vote by Parliament. Facing skepticism at home, too, the administration shared intelligence with lawmakers aimed at convincing them the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its people and must be punished.
Despite roadblocks in forming an international coalition, Obama appeared undeterred and advisers said he would be willing to retaliate against Syria on his own.
“The president of the United States is elected with the duty to protect the national security interests in the United States of America,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
Even before the vote in London, the U.S. was preparing to act without formal authorization from the United Nations, where Russia has blocked efforts to seek a resolution authorizing the use of force, or from Capitol Hill. But the U.S. had expected Britain, a major ally, to join in the effort.
Top U.S. officials spoke with certain lawmakers for more than 90 minutes in a teleconference Thursday evening to explain why they believe Bashar Assad’s government was the culprit in a suspected chemical attack last week. Lawmakers from both parties have been pressing Obama to provide a legal rationale for military action and specify objectives, as well as to lay out a firm case linking Assad to the attack.
A number of lawmakers raised questions in the briefing about how the administration would finance a military operation as the Pentagon is grappling with automatic spending cuts and reduced budgets.
Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee and a participant on the call, said in a statement that the administration presented a “broad range of options” for dealing with Syria but failed to offer a single plan, timeline, strategy or explanation of how it would pay for any military operation.
Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and a call participant, told reporters that administration officials are in the process of declassifying the evidence they have of the Syrian government using chemical weapons.
“When they do that, we’ll understand. But it’s up to the president of the United States to present his case, to sell this to the American public. They’re very war weary. We’ve been at war now for over 10 years,” McKeon told reporters at a post-call news conference at his office in Valencia, Calif.
It remained to be seen whether any skeptics were swayed by the call, given the expectation in advance that officials would hold back classified information to protect intelligence sources and methods.
“The main thing was that they have no doubt that Assad’s forces used chemical weapons,” New York Rep. Eliot Engel, top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a supporter of Obama’s course, said after the briefing.
But he said the officials did not provide much new evidence of that.
“They said they have (intercepted) some discussions and some indications from a high-level official,” he said, and that they possess intelligence showing material being moved in advance of the attack.
He called the tone “respectful. There was no shouting. No one was accusing the administration of doing anything wrong.”
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said the briefing “reaffirmed for me that a decisive and consequential U.S. response is justified and warranted to protect Syrians, as well as to send a global message that chemical weapons attacks in violation of international law will not stand.”
In London, Prime Minister David Cameron argued a military strike would be legal on humanitarian grounds. But he faced deep pressure from lawmakers and had already promised not to undertake military action until a U.N. chemical weapons team on the ground in Syria released its findings about the Aug. 21 attack.
The prime minister said in terse comments after the vote that while he believes in a “tough response” to the use of chemical weapons, he would respect the will of the House of Commons.
Caitlin Hayden, Obama’s National Security Council spokeswoman, said the U.S. would continue to consult with Britain but Obama would make decisions based on “the best interests of the United States.”
It was not certain the U.S. would have to act alone. France announced that its armed forces “have been put in position to respond” if President Francois Hollande commits forces to intervention against Syria. Hollande does not need French parliamentary approval to launch military action that lasts less than four months.
Obama discussed the situation in Syria with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who wrote to the president earlier this week seeking a legal justification for a military strike and the objectives of any potential action.
Assad, who has denied using chemical weapons, vowed his country “will defend itself against any aggression.”
Some of the U.N. chemical weapons experts will travel directly from Syria on Saturday to different laboratories around Europe to deliver “an extensive amount of material” gathered, U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said. While the mandate of the U.N. team is to determine whether chemical agents were used in the attack, not who was responsible, Haq suggested the evidence â which includes biological samples and witness interviews â might give an indication of who deployed gases.
Obama and other top officials have not revealed definitive evidence to back claims that Assad used chemical weapons on Syrians. U.S. officials say the intelligence assessments are no “slam dunk,” with questions remaining about who actually controls some of Syria’s chemical weapons stores and doubts about whether Assad himself ordered the strike.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the intelligence publicly.
Despite shortcomings in the intelligence, the White House signaled urgency in acting, with Earnest, the White House spokesman saying the president believes there is a “compressed time frame” for responding.
“It is important for the Assad regime and other totalitarian dictators around the world to understand that the international community will not tolerate the indiscriminate, widespread use of chemical weapons, particularly against women and children as they’re sleeping in their beds,” he said.
But many Congress members were pressing Obama to explain the need for military action and address fears that such a move might draw the U.S. deeper into the Syrian civil war.
The White House has not responded directly to Boehner’s letter seeking more answers about Syria operations and the speaker’s office appeared unsatisfied after the president’s call Thursday.
“Only the president can answer these questions, and it is clear that further dialogue and consultation with Congress, as well as communication with the American public, will be needed,” Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said.
Washington Rep. Adam Smith, senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, cautioned that an attack might be ineffective and might draw the United States into the Syrian civil war, now in its third year.
“Simply lashing out with military force under the banner of ‘doing something’ will not secure our interests in Syria,” Smith said in a statement.
Thursday’s briefing for lawmakers was expected to include only unclassified intelligence, meaning that key details that could more clearly link Assad to a chemical attack might not have been part of it. A similar intelligence report is also expected to be released publicly on Friday.
Obama continued making his case for a robust response to world leaders, speaking Thursday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. With national elections scheduled in Germany for next month, Merkel is unlikely to pull her country into a military conflict.
Merkel also discussed Syria by phone Thursday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, insisting that the attack “requires an international reaction,” Merkel spokesman Steffen Seibert said.
Obama has ruled out putting American forces on the ground in Syria or setting up a no-fly zone over the country. He’s also said any U.S. response to the chemical weapons attack would be limited in scope and aimed solely at punishing Assad for deploying deadly gases, not at regime change.
“We do have to make sure that when countries break international norms on weapons like chemical weapons that could threaten us, that they are held accountable,” he said during a television interview.
The most likely military option would be Tomahawk cruise missile strikes from four Navy destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. At a minimum, Western forces are expected to strike targets that symbolize Assad’s military and political might: military and national police headquarters, including the Defense Ministry; the Syrian military’s general staff; and the four-brigade Republican Guard that is in charge of protecting Damascus, Assad’s seat of power. Assad’s ruling Baath Party headquarters could be targeted, too.
U.S. officials also are considering attacking military command centers and vital forces, communications hubs and weapons caches, including ballistic missile batteries.
Associated Press writers Kimberly Dozier, Matt Apuzzo, Donna Cassata and Bradley Klapper in Washington, Alexandra Olson at the United Nations, Robert Burns in Manila, Philippines, and Raquel Dillon in Valencia, Calif., contributed to this report.