The White House signalled on Sunday night that the Syrian government’s decision to finally allow weapons inspectors to analyse the site of last week’s alleged chemical attack was too little too late after bluntly rebuffing an invitation issued by Damascus.
“If the Syrian government had nothing to hide and wanted to prove to the world that it had not used chemical weapons in this incident, it would have ceased its attacks on the area and granted immediate access to the UN five days ago,” a senior Obama administration official said.
Options for a military strike drawn up by the Pentagon are already on President Barack Obama’s desk. However as he contemplated them last night – most likely a strike by cruise missiles launched from the Mediterranean – he was on the receiving end of strong warnings to desist from both Moscow and some leaders of his own party at home.
The administration official stressed that President Obama had not made up his mind and was awaiting a final assessment from the US intelligence services on the circumstances of the use of chemical weapons. But he made clear that the outcome of that assessment was hardly a matter of suspense. “There is very little doubt at this point that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime against civilians in this incident.” Any final decision may also await a meeting of top Western and Arab defence ministers in Amman expected in the coming few days.
Martin Nesirky, a UN spokesman in New York, said that team already in place in Syria “is preparing to conduct on-site fact-finding activities” on Monday, adding that the regime has “affirmed that it will provide the necessary co-operation, including the observance of the cessation of hostilities at the locations related to the incident”.
President Obama just a few days ago made clear his preference for winning support for any military intervention from the UN Security Council first. That, however, would assume the backing of both Russia and China, which each have veto power. Hardly encouraging therefore was a statement issued by the Russian foreign ministry that sought to remind the US of events 10 years ago when it began its invasion of Iraq without a UN resolution.
“We once again decisively urge [the United States] not to repeat the mistakes of the past and not to allow actions that go against international law,” the statement said. “Any unilateral military action bypassing the United Nations will... lead to further escalation [in Syria] and will affect the already explosive situation in the Middle East in the most devastating way.”
The dilemma is vivid for Mr Obama who has made no secret of his own misgivings about involving the US directly in the conflict. “Sometimes what we’ve seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff, that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations,” he said last week. “We have to think through strategically what’s going to be in our long-term national interests.”
Polls show that most Americans strongly opposed to US intervention. Democratic Senator Jack Reed publicly fretted about being sucked into a longer commitment in Syria. “We can’t let ourselves get into a situation where this becomes a springboard for a general military option,” he told CBS News.
Senator Reed also warned against concluding that the regime was responsible for the use of chemical weapons without final conclusive evidence. “We have to verify that it was directed by the Assad regime because that will allow us to build an international coalition because that will allow us to take any further steps in Syria.”
Elsewhere, resolve for a US-led attack on Syrian installations appeared to be hardening. French President François Hollande reiterated the view in many Western capitals that chemical agents were used last week, telling Mr Obama that “everything was consistent with designating the Damascus regime as the perpetrator of these unacceptable attacks.”