The Middle East Channel

Obama pushes Congress for approval of Syria strike as refugees top 2 million

The White House is pushing for Congressional approval of an attack on Syria. The efforts have come after an abrupt reversal over the weekend by President Barack Obama postponing military action in order to first seek authorization from Congress. Obama seems to have won support of Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, however many lawmakers completely oppose a military strike, and the debate has come at a time of extreme bipartisanship. The Obama administration sent a draft resolution to Congress, which is expected to come to a vote next week. It seeks the use of force in Syria which the president "determines to be necessary and appropriate in connection with the use of chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction." France is also pushing for military action on Syria, and released an intelligence report claiming Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's connection to a "massive and coordinated chemical attack." On Monday, Assad warned the United States and its allies against a military strike on Syria saying the region is a "powder keg" and that "chaos and extremism will be widespread." Russia has raised concerns Tuesday reporting two ballistic "objects" were launched in the Mediterranean Sea. Israel said it had conducted a joint missile test with the United States. Syria did not detect any foreign missile strikes on its territory. Meanwhile, on Tuesday the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said that the number of Syrians registered as refugees has exceeded two million, increasing by a million in the past six months. Additionally, approximately 4.25 million people have been displaced within Syria by the nearly two-year conflict.


  • An Egyptian judicial panel has advised the court to remove the Muslim Brotherhood's NGO status, threatening the group's political future, meanwhile Egypt's state prosecutor has referred former President Morsi for trial on charges of inciting murder.
  • An estimated 14 people have been killed Tuesday in shootings and a car bombing in and near the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.
  • The daughter of Libya's former intelligence chief, Abdullah al-Senussi, has been abducted after being ambushed leaving a Tripoli prison Monday.
  • An Egyptian court on Tuesday ordered four TV stations known for their coverage of Islamist protests to stop broadcasting, including Al Jazeera's affiliate Mubasher Misr.
  • The Mujahideen-e Khalq has accused Iraqi soldiers of attacking Camp Ashraf, which houses Iranian exiles, killing 52 of the group's member, however Iraqi officials denied entering the camp. 

Arguments and Analysis

'Syria Statement' (International Crisis Group)

"Assuming the U.S. Congress authorises them, Washington (together with some allies) soon will launch military strikes against Syrian regime targets. If so, it will have taken such action for reasons largely divorced from the interests of the Syrian people.  The administration has cited the need to punish, deter and prevent use of chemical weapons -- a defensible goal, though Syrians have suffered from far deadlier mass atrocities during the course of the conflict without this prompting much collective action in their defence. The administration also refers to the need, given President Obama's asserted ‘redline' against use of chemical weapons, to protect Washington's credibility -- again an understandable objective though unlikely to resonate much with Syrians. Quite apart from talk of outrage, deterrence and restoring U.S. credibility, the priority must be the welfare of the Syrian people. Whether or not military strikes are ordered, this only can be achieved through imposition of a sustained ceasefire and widely accepted political transition."

'Syrians want rid of President Assad, but without US bombs' (Wadah Khanfar, The Guardian)

"The Arab world has longed to get rid of the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad for years. In their minds it represents absolute evil. Future generations will remember the savage massacres perpetrated by the Syrian regime and the images of women and children who were slaughtered. But this strong desire to eradicate the regime will, for the most part, never be translated into support for American military intervention. That is because of misgivings and mistrust concerning US motives.

President Obama's address last Saturday was loaded with emotions. He used the phrase ‘moral responsibility' to justify punishing the Syrian regime for using chemical weapons against civilians. That, however, did little to convince many Arabs. Few have felt this moral responsibility in their dealings with the US, which has been losing credibility with the Arab public for decades. An entrenched image of American double standards and political bias against Arab interests has taken root; especially with regard to US bias towards Israel and America's longstanding support for tyrannical Arab regimes. This image was reinforced even more strongly after Washington's ‘war on terror' and its invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.

While Obama's election initially seemed appealing, with his promises of new policies in the Middle East, he missed the opportunity in his very first test in dealing with the Palestine question. He retreated from his demands for an end to Israeli settlement of Palestinian land -- a demand he had personally made -- and backtracked on a promise to close Guantánamo detention facility. And under Obama the US continued to cause heavy civilian casualties through its use of drones against targets in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen, quashing Arab hopes of any serious change in policy."

'Forcing Obama's Hand in Syria' (Vali Nasr, New York Times)

"Mr. Obama has understandably viewed any involvement in Syria as a slippery slope to an expensive war that Americans do not want and will not support. Even after President Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons, his administration has been slow to react, and after much back-and-forth it has decided to punish Mr. Assad -- but only in a discrete operation that would not have a direct bearing on the outcome of the civil war, and only, as Mr. Obama suggested on Saturday, if Congress gives its blessing.

The world will not see this as prudence but rather as dithering -- reinforcing the perception that the United States is hiding behind its economic woes and, hounded by the ghosts of Iraq, is no longer keen on leading the world. That will embolden America's adversaries and deject its friends. America could soon find itself alone in standing up to Iran or North Korea, or in pushing back against China and Russia, which have used their veto power on the Security Council to block United Nations authorization for intervention in Syria.

Americans are justifiably weary of war, but the lesson of Syria is that shirking from our global responsibilities will only create bigger problems that will eventually raise both the cost and the likelihood of American intervention."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

Kristoffer Tripplaar-Pool/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

British Parliament blocks military action on Syria

The British Parliament has voted against military action on Syria. Prime Minister David Cameron brought up the motion to the parliament to authorize, in principle, a military response to the alleged chemical weapons attacks. The move was, however, struck down 285 to 272. Cameron said he strongly believes "in the need for a tough response to the use of chemical weapons" but that he will not override parliament's decision. France said it still backs action on Syria despite the British no vote with President Francois Holland maintaining, "All options are on the table." According to U.S. officials, President Barack Obama is prepared to conduct a limited military strike without British involvement, but is continuing to seek a coalition for possible military action. Pentagon officials reported that the navy has moved a fifth destroyer into the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Russia is reportedly also sending two warships to the eastern Mediterranean, but has said it will not be pulled into a military conflict. After a briefing with senior U.S. lawmakers on Thursday, administration officials said they had "no doubt" of the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons. U.S. officials including U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry said evidence includes "intercepted communications from high-level Syrian officials." U.N. inspectors are continuing their investigation on Friday into the suspected chemical weapons attacks, visiting with Syrian soldiers at a military hospital in a government-held area of Damascus. The team of experts is set to leave Syria on Saturday and will report its findings to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council are debating a draft resolution that would authorize "all necessary force" to respond to the alleged chemical attacks, however will likely not come to a decision until hearing the results of the investigation.


Arguments and Analysis

'Obama, Syria & the Constitution' (David Cole, New York Review of Books Blog)

"It is possible that the military action now being contemplated by the White House might qualify as 'humanitarian intervention,' on the ground that it is designed to forestall further atrocities in Syria. Whether such a response in the absence of UN Security Council approval is permissible under international law is a matter of debate, although most legal scholars would argue that Security Council approval is required. But again, under our Constitution, there is no exception to the requirement of Congressional approval for humanitarian interventions. Any hostile use of military force in another sovereign's territory without its consent is an act of war, and requires Congress's assent.

If President Obama ignores this requirement, he won't be the first. President Clinton ignored it when he gave NATO authorization to use US forces to bomb Kosovo. President Reagan did so when he supported the contras in Nicaragua's civil war, and when he sent troops to Grenada. President Truman did so in Korea, which he called a 'police action,' fooling no one. In fact, the reason Congress enacted the War Powers Resolution was that presidents had too often seized the advantage by unilaterally introducing troops, and only then, if at all, coming to Congress for authorization after the fact, when Congress had no real choice but to support the president."

'Responsibility to Protect -- Or to Punish' (Charli Carpenter, Foreign Affairs)

"There are two distinct conversations going on about the legitimacy of the West's expected military campaign against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. The first has to do with whether military action is an appropriate response to the wanton violation of a near-universally held norm -- in this case, the taboo against the use of chemical weapons, which the Assad regime allegedly violated last week. The second centers on whether military action is an appropriate means for protecting civilian populations from atrocities (of whatever kind) committed by their governments. These conversations, although often conflated, have very little to do with one another, since each policy goal suggests a very different form of intervention.

Despite diplomatic rhetoric, the goal of upholding the chemical weapons taboo is not the same thing as the goal of protecting civilians. It has more to do with protecting a set of shared international understandings about the proper conduct of warfare. If the goal were really to protect civilians, the West would have intervened long ago: bombs and guns have killed far more civilians, at least as horribly, as last week's gas attack.

The Obama administration has already confirmed that its primary concern is with protecting the norm and punishing its violators. Given that goal, the appropriate course of action would be to, first, independently verify who violated it. The United States claims that it has ‘no doubt' that Syria was behind last week's chemical attack, but that remains an open question until the UN inspectors have completed their investigation. Second, the United States would have to consider a range of policy options for affirming, condemning, and lawfully punishing the perpetrator before resorting to force, particularly unlawful force. As, a nongovernmental organization notes, these might include condemnation, an arms embargo, sanctions, or any of the other bilateral and multilateral measures that are typically used to respond to violations of weapons norms (and which might be at least as effective than air strikes, if not more so). Third, should the United States decide on military action, with or without a UN Security Council resolution, it would need to adhere to international norms regulating the use of specific weapons in combat."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber 

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