Syria airstrikes: is there another way?                

Returning from the G20 in St Petersburg, President Obama – in 
the words of the Associated Press – faces a "frenetic, high-stakes week" selling his plan for airstrikes in Syria to a sceptical Congress. Obama and his aides will engage in "a flurry of speeches, phone calls, briefings and personal visits to Democrats and Republicans alike" and on Tuesday he will makes his case to the American people in a TV broadcast from the White House.

While the media continues to build this up as a political cliffhanger, I'm not convinced that the coming week will be decisive. What if the two houses of Congress vote in opposite directions or choose to wait until they have heard from the UN weapons inspectors?

Internationally too, support for airstrikes is very thin. Yesterday, on the fringes of the G20, eleven countries issued a joint statement on Syria. 

They condemned the chemical attack near Damascus on August 21 and agreed that "evidence clearly points to the Syrian government being responsible". They called for "a strong international response" but noted that the Security Council "remains paralysed" as far as taking action through the UN is concerned. 

There was no direct mention of military action, though the statement did say: "We support efforts undertaken by the United States and other countries to reinforce the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons."

The 11 signatories were Australia, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States, plus Spain (which is not a G20 member but a permanent guest).

Those that didn't sign were Argentina, Brazil, China, Germany, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia, South Africa and the European Union. (The EU countries are still struggling to reach a common position).

At a news conference in St Petersburg yesterday, Obama played down his call for airstrikes: "I’m not itching for military action" and "I was elected to end wars, not start them." Nor did he rule out non-military options – providing they are workable.

Obama was asked:

"Some in Congress have suggested giving the Syrian regime 45 days to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, get rid of its chemical stockpiles – do something that would enhance international sense of accountability for Syria but delay military action. Are you, Mr President, looking at any of these ideas?"

He replied:

"I am listening to all these ideas. And some of them are constructive. And I’m listening to ideas in Congress, and I’m listening to ideas here [in St Petersburg]. But I want to repeat here: My goal is to maintain the international norm on banning chemical weapons. I want that enforcement to be real. I want it to be serious ...

"If there are tools that we can use to ensure that, obviously my preference would be, again, to act internationally in a serious way and to make sure that Mr Assad gets the message ...

"So we will look at these ideas. So far, at least, I have not seen ideas presented that as a practical matter I think would do the job. But this is a situation where part of the reason I wanted to foster debate was to make sure that everybody thought about both the ramifications of action and inaction."

Even if Congress backs airstrikes, it seems increasingly unlikely that they will happen before the inspectors have reported their findings – one reason being that France, Obama's only real ally on the military front, wants to hold off until then.

Assuming the inspectors do produce evidence of sarin, Russia will then be in an awkward position. President Putin has already agreed that using such weapons is a crime. The Russian foreign ministry has also stated that the UN's testing methods comply "with scientific standards".

So, while Putin may continue to dispute who used the weapons, he will be in no position to dispute the chemical analysis or, if sarin is confirmed, the need to do something about it.

Even if Putin wants to continue insisting that the Assad regime is innocent, he presumably wouldn't want to see similar accusations made against the regime in future. And one way to ensure that (as I suggested in an earlier blog post) would be to put the regime's chemical stockpile beyond use – under UN supervision.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Saturday, 7 September 2013