Obama makes case for punishing Syria over gas attack

WASHINGTON Wed Aug 28, 2013 7:44pm EDT

1 of 14. Free Syrian Army fighters walk together while holding their weapons near Aleppo International airport August 28, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Molhem Barakat

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama vowed on Wednesday that the Syrian government would face "international consequences" for last week's deadly chemical attack, but made clear any military response would be limited to avoid dragging the United States into another war in the Middle East.

Casting the need for action based on U.S. national security interests instead of humanitarian grounds, Obama made his case to a war-weary American public for what is looking like an all-but-certain use of force in Syria, where he has long been reluctant to intervene.

While saying he and allied leaders had not yet made a decision on military strikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's loyalists, he left little doubt that the choice was not whether to act but when.

"We have concluded that the Syrian government in fact carried these out, and if that's so, then there need to be international consequences," Obama told "PBS Newshour" in a televised interview.

There were growing signs, however, that the timeline for launching any military strike on Syria could be complicated not only by the U.N. weapons inspectors' continued presence there but by the Obama administration's efforts to coordinate with international partners and growing demands for consultation with U.S. lawmakers.

On top of that, Britain - a key player in any air assault on Syria - changed its stance on Wednesday, saying the U.N. Security Council should see findings from weapons inspectors before any military action is taken and that the British parliament should vote on the matter twice.

For his part, Obama insisted that while Assad's government must be punished, he intended to avoid repeating Washington's errors from the Iraq war.

"I have no interest in any open-ended conflict in Syria, but 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," Obama said.

It was Obama's clearest justification yet for a tough response against Assad, who is accused of having crossed a "red line" for large-scale chemical weapons use that Obama established just over a year ago. Hundreds of people were killed in a poison gas attack on Damascus suburb last Wednesday.

SYRIANS PREPARE FOR ATTACK

In Damascus on Wednesday, people left homes close to potential targets as U.S. officials sketched out plans for multi-national air strikes on Syria that could last for days. U.N. chemical weapons experts completed a second field trip to rebel-held suburbs searching for evidence.

But as U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon appealed for unity among world powers and sought more time for the inspectors to complete their work, Washington and its European and Middle East allies said their minds were made up and that Assad must face retribution for using banned weapons against his people.

Syria's government, supported notably by its main arms supplier Russia, cried foul. It blamed rebel "terrorists" for releasing the toxins with the help of the United States, Britain and France, and warned it would be a "graveyard of invaders."

Syrian officials say the West is playing into the hands of its al Qaeda enemies. The presence of Islamist militants among the rebels has deterred Western powers from arming Assad's foes. But the West says it must now act to stop the use of poison gas.

Britain pushed the other four veto-holding members of the U.N. Security Council at a meeting in New York to authorize military action against Assad to protect Syrian civilians - a move certain to be blocked by Russia and, probably, China. The meeting ended without a decision.

The United States and its allies say a U.N. veto will not stop them. Western diplomats called the proposed resolution a maneuver to isolate Moscow and rally a coalition behind air strikes. Arab states, NATO and Turkey also condemned Assad.

But British Prime Minister David Cameron was forced on Wednesday to push back his timetable after coming under fierce domestic and international pressure, and it was unclear how that might affect any Syria attack plans.

Just a day after recalling Britain's parliament to vote on how to respond to Syria's suspected use of chemical weapons, Cameron was ambushed when the opposition Labour party said it wanted greater parliamentary scrutiny and rebel lawmakers in his own ruling Conservative Party said they would oppose him.

(Additional reporting by Oliver Holmes, Erika Solomon, William Maclean and Mariam Karouny in Beirut, Guy Faulconbridge and Andrew Osborn in London, Steve Gutterman in Moscow, Tom Miles and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Yeganeh Torbati and Yara Bayoumy in Dubai, Anthony Deutsch and Thomas Escritt in The Hague, Ben Blanchard in Beijing, Arshad Mohammed, Mark Hosenball, Matt Spetalnick and Patricia Zengerle and Phil Stewart in Washington; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Will Waterman, David Stamp and Peter Cooney)

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Comments (140)
This war is a very, very stupid undertaking. Just read the following:
BLOOMBERG — Even Mustapha al-Sheikh, among the first senior officers to defect from the Syrian army, says the rebels he joined are too divided to gain much from a possible Western military attack against President Bashar al-Assad.
“The strength of the regime comes from the weakness of the opposition,” al-Sheikh, who was a brigadier-general in Assad’s army, said in a phone interview yesterday from an undisclosed location in Syria.
Because of those divisions, as the U.S. and its allies consider military action against Assad, they are struggling to identify potential successors to the Syrian leader should his regime collapse. More than two years into the conflict, hundreds of militias fighting Assad aren’t unified under a national command and don’t report to opposition politicians in exile, who have been cultivated by the West. Some of them are radical Islamist groups allied with al-Qaeda.
That has constrained U.S. efforts to provide support for the rebels. It’s also likely to limit the scope of any U.S.-led strikes to punish Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons, according to al-Sheikh and defense analysts in Europe and the Middle East.
“We don’t have an opposition that I think we should be putting in power,” said Col. Richard Kemp, a former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, and a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies, speaking by phone from London. “The opposition is dominated by al-Qaeda and other extremists, so it’s going to be bad, possibly worse than Assad himself.”

Aug 27, 2013 8:49pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
This war is a very, very stupid undertaking. Just read the following:
BLOOMBERG — Even Mustapha al-Sheikh, among the first senior officers to defect from the Syrian army, says the rebels he joined are too divided to gain much from a possible Western military attack against President Bashar al-Assad.
“The strength of the regime comes from the weakness of the opposition,” al-Sheikh, who was a brigadier-general in Assad’s army, said in a phone interview yesterday from an undisclosed location in Syria.
Because of those divisions, as the U.S. and its allies consider military action against Assad, they are struggling to identify potential successors to the Syrian leader should his regime collapse. More than two years into the conflict, hundreds of militias fighting Assad aren’t unified under a national command and don’t report to opposition politicians in exile, who have been cultivated by the West. Some of them are radical Islamist groups allied with al-Qaeda.
That has constrained U.S. efforts to provide support for the rebels. It’s also likely to limit the scope of any U.S.-led strikes to punish Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons, according to al-Sheikh and defense analysts in Europe and the Middle East.
“We don’t have an opposition that I think we should be putting in power,” said Col. Richard Kemp, a former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, and a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies, speaking by phone from London. “The opposition is dominated by al-Qaeda and other extremists, so it’s going to be bad, possibly worse than Assad himself.”

Aug 27, 2013 8:49pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
philosopfizer wrote:
Why are Chemical weapons any worse than “daisy cutters”, cruise missiles, cluster grenades, or massive bombing? USA beware. Your high and mighty policing of the world will bankrupt you and rob you of credibility. Humanity has been doing this to itself for thousands of years. Islamist blow each other up daily. Frankly, strongmen and dictators need to be in place in certain parts of the world where democracy is impossible, and terrorism is a lifestyle.

Aug 27, 2013 9:11pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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