Indecision Debate Slows Western Reaction on Syria

Uncertainty over how to respond to presumed poison gas attacks in Syria has gripped several Western capitals. British Prime Minister David Cameron backed away from his bellicose rhetoric from earlier this week and Chancellor Merkel is attempting to play intermediary.

AFP

Earlier this week, it looked as though a military strike against Syria was imminent in response to the country's alleged use of chemical weapons against its own people. On Thursday, however, vacillation and caution has become the dominant tone in Western capitals in the global debate over an appropriate response to the apparent poison gas attacks that killed hundreds of civilians last Wednesday.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday spoke to both French President François Hollande and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin by telephone to discuss the situation in Syria. Statements from her office regarding those two calls, however, did more to shed light on the difficult challenges Syria presents Merkel ahead of German general elections in four weeks than they did on the position Berlin might ultimately take.

According to one statement, Merkel and Hollande agreed that there must be a reaction to the gas attack. "They hope for a quick end to the United Nations' investigative mission and an immediate report to the UN Security Council so that it can fulfill its responsibility with regards to this monstrous crime," it said.

The other statement, concerning her call with Putin, read: "The chancellor called on the Russian president to use negotiations in the UN Security Council for a quick, unanimous international reaction."

Late on Thursday, the White House also said that President Barack Obama had spoken with Merkel about the matter, but did not reveal further details.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle likewise spoke with his Chinese counterpart on Thursday, saying that the Security Council must come up with a unanimous response should the use of chemical weapons be proven.

Looking Isolated

But if a Security Council resolution on Syria were passed unanimously, however, it increasingly looks as though it would be a weak one. Russia has made clear in no uncertain terms that it opposes military action against Syria and autocrat Bashar Assad. China too has indicated it will not agree to authorize military action. Indeed, media reports indicate that the British draft resolution calling for intervention introduced on Wednesday won't even be voted on in the UN body.

French President Hollande is looking increasingly isolated in his readiness for action. On Thursday he said that "everything must be done to reach a political solution," but said that such a solution in Syria was contingent on a strong opposition force in the country and that "we will only achieve this if the international community is capable of bringing a stop to this escalation of violence, of which the chemical massacre is just one illustration." His defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, made it clear that the French armed forces are ready for action should Hollande order an attack.

Elsewhere, though, the West appears to be getting cold feet. In particular, British Prime Minister David Cameron has had to back down from his pro-intervention rhetoric from earlier this week. With parliamentarians from his own party joining Labour in requesting more evidence that the Assad regime was indeed behind the gas attacks in several villages just east of Damascus on Aug. 21, Cameron has put the brakes on his rush to arms.

On Thursday, he faces what promises to be a lively debate in the House of Commons over the appropriate next step. That session is to culminate in a vote that would in principle authorize military action, but any attack would have to be put to a second vote. Cameron, of course, does not need parliamentary approval to take action, but memories of Iraq -- when British forces followed the Americans into what became an almost decade-long quagmire -- are still alive and well in Britain. Furthermore, a recent poll suggested that just 22 percent of Britons support a military strike on Syria, while 51 percent are opposed.

Waffling in London

Cameron's government on Thursday published an assessment by the Joint Intelligence Committee which concluded that it was "highly likely" that the Assad regime was behind the use of chemical weapons and also laid out the legal case for action absent a Security Council resolution. But in comments to parliament on Thursday afternoon, he struck a different tone. "It would be unthinkable to proceed if there was overwhelming opposition in the UN Security Council," he said. Syria has repeatedly denied that it was behind the gas attacks.

The waffling in London means that Washington too has slowed down its preparations. US President Barack Obama has likewise been clear about his belief that the Syrian government is behind the attacks, but also said that he had not made up his mind about which of the options presented to him by US military leaders he might pursue. "If we are saying in a clear and decisive but very limited way, we send a shot across the bow saying 'stop doing this,' this can have a positive impact on our national security over the long term," he said in a Wednesday interview with the broadcaster PBS. Still, Washington has little desire to go it alone and will likely sit out the debate in London before moving forward.

In the mean time, governments in Europe and elsewhere have said that no final decision on a possible strike will be made until the UN completes its on-the-ground investigation at the site of the alleged attacks. The inspectors are planning to leave Syria on Saturday.

cgh -- with wire reports

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curiouskarin 08/29/2013
1. Western Folly
The "rebels", whoever they are, are the only ones who stand to gain big time in the coming debacle - yet nobody smells a rat? Saran gas, if that is what it was, is not especially hard to make. Any good chemist can do it. It has been used by terrorists before! Yet here we are, about to create another Bush/Iraq moment, completely ignoring what happened in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Egypt. Is it not blatantly obvious by now that only a very firm rule kept these disparate Muslims groups from each others throats in these countries? Why are we so conditioned to think that every protest is worthy or wise, and that every ruler must let mobs wreck their cities and infrastructure indefinitely? It is an irrational and counterproductive expectation! Yet - again we are all getting dragged into another American President’s folly. Too bad Obama declared an ill considered red line and that Cameron feels he has British honour to uphold because children were killed with gas! I was born in Germany in 1941. I am now a proud Canadian. German children of my generation died by legion, on streets, in bunkers, basements, and yes - splattered with napalm in the fields. Yes - it was in the field next to my house and I remember it all too well. Where was British and American pity and honour then? It is better to die under a bomb and napalm or by a bullet or knife or gas? The dead can't tell us - and only the likes of me are left to wonder - because we were lucky! Personally, I would take the bullet because nothing can be as awful as napalm! Shame, shame, on my fellow Germans for even considering this coming action with favour. Have none of you any sense of courage, honour, or intelligence that once were the hallmarks of Germany?
anthonybellchambers 08/29/2013
2. Syria, Israel and chemical weapons
Syria, Israel and banned chemical weapons It was reported by the UNHRC that Israeli troops used white phosphorus as a banned chemical weapon against Palestinian civilians during its attack against Gaza in December 2008 and that more than 300 children under the age of sixteen were killed by the IDF during that military operation. (See UN Report on Operation Cast Lead). No international action was ever taken against the Israeli commanders who ordered the use of this banned substance as a weapon against a civilian population. With this in mind, it seems an extraordinary decision for the US and the UK to predicate their intention to use cruise missiles against Syria upon 'intelligence' offered by Israeli sources when such proposed action could cause a conflagration that might engulf the entire Middle East.
danm 08/29/2013
3. optional
The USA does not need to get involved in Syria. In fact, we need to get out of the business of nation building completely. While I feel badly for the Syrian people, this is not our fight.
guswfla1 08/30/2013
4. optional
"Merkel and Hollande agreed that there must be a reaction to the gas attack." Why? To kill more civilians? That's the only guaranteed result.
anthonybellchambers 08/30/2013
5. UK votes against military action!
The United Kingdom has voted against the US-Israeli coalition attempt to control world politics for its own advantage by the use of military intervention to the detriment of global peace and has made Cameron, Obama and Blair appear to be misguided politicians who have grossly misjudged the will of their electorates.
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