The United Nations Chemical Weapons Team led by Swedish Professor Sellstrom has decided for security reasons to postpone for at least a day any further visits to the locations of the most recent alleged chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs last week. It came under sniper fire on August 26th as it tried to enter the affected area, but team members were able to take some samples, visit two hospitals and interview survivors, eyewitnesses and doctors in the western district of Muadhamiya.
In a statement issued on August 27th, the UN Secretary General’s Spokesperson Office said the following:
Following yesterday's attack on the UN convoy, a comprehensive assessment determined that the visit should be postponed by one day in order to improve preparedness and safety for the team. Considering the complexities of the site, confirmation of access has not been obtained but is expected later today.
Secretary of State John Kerry, meanwhile, all but declared the UN expert team’s investigation irrelevant. He claimed during a news briefing, without citing any concrete evidence, that the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in the August 21st attack against opposition strongholds is now “undeniable.” He dismissed out of hand the distinct possibility that Islamist elements of the opposition forces, which include al Qaeda affiliates, could have launched the chemical weapons attack themselves with weapons they were able to obtain, and staged it to look like an attack by the Syrian government. Black and white, pre-determined assumptions are driving Obama administration policy, not hard evidence.
Accordingly, the Obama administration, under increasing pressure from the United Kingdom, France, Turkey, and hawkish members of Congress to take military action, is poised to launch a missile strike against the Assad regime. According to Reuters, “Western powers told the Syrian opposition to expect a strike against President Bashar al-Assad's forces within days.”
With four destroyers already in the eastern Mediterranean Sea within striking distance of Syria and with warplanes in the region as well, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel pronounced the U.S. military “ready to go" if and when President Obama gives the order to proceed.
Obama has little room to avoid a military confrontation, having backed himself into a corner by declaring a red line last year on the use of chemical weapons and doing nothing about it until now. The problem is that Obama has no clear strategy in the Middle East to align U.S. interests with the least unfavorable outcome, since we can expect no real positive outcome in that part of the world no matter what we do – only a choice between the lesser of two evils. It is true that even a couple of days of missile attacks on weapons arsenals, aircraft, command and control centers, and other military facilities that the Obama administration may now be contemplating can weaken some of Assad’s military advantage. This may create some space for the opposition forces to regroup and regain some momentum in the fighting that it has lost in recent weeks. However, such limited-scope use of force will have no major strategic effect, especially with both sides to the conflict knowing that the Obama administration has no appetite for wider and more sustained military involvement. And helping the opposition means helping the al Qaeda affiliates and other Sunni jihadist groups that are fighting to replace the Assad regime with an Islamist state. A decisive victory by such Islamist forces would be even worse for the United States than the status quo.
The best we can hope for in terms of U.S. national interests is to help create the conditions for a stalemate, which draws Iran and Hezbollah even further into the Syrian conflict on one side and al Qaeda and other Sunni jihadists on the other side. It works to our advantage by having these terrorists fight each other to the death, but it will likely be at the cost of many more innocent lives as well.
Ironically, if Obama does proceed militarily as planned, he will be doing so without the imprimatur of the United Nations Security Council, whose authority under international law to legitimize the use of outside military force against a member state Obama has stressed in the past. This appearance of double standards by the United States is a problem of Obama’s own making. He has relied too much previously on the UN’s capacity to deal with issues affecting international peace and security, even those on which geopolitical rivalries and colliding national interests prevent a consensus necessary for the Security Council to act.
The result of Obama’s decision to operate outside the auspices of the UN this time will be to hand Russia and China cheap propaganda points, as one or both countries will be likely to demand an emergency session of the Security Council to protest what they will no doubt denounce as naked aggression. Any chance for the Geneva II peace conference that Kerry has labored to set up with his Russian counterpart, for the purpose of bringing Syrian government and opposition leaders to the table to negotiate a political solution, will be greatly diminished in the near term.
"Attempts to bypass the Security Council, once again to create artificial groundless excuses for a military intervention in the region are fraught with new suffering in Syria and catastrophic consequences for other countries of the Middle East and North Africa," Russian foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in a statement.
There is no good outcome that can be expected to emerge from the Syrian conflict. However, President Obama should at least avoid making things worse, which requires a well thought-out strategy for the entire Middle East region that is sorely lacking at present.
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