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WASHINGTON, Aug 29 2013 (IPS) - What seemed inevitable just 48 hours ago – an imminent U.S. missile attack on Syrian targets in response to an alleged chemical attack that reportedly killed hundreds of Syrian citizens – stalled Thursday as the justification for military action faced increasing questioning both here and abroad.
Growing calls by both Republican and Democratic lawmakers for consultations with, if not formal authorisation by, Congress before Obama takes any military action have raised the potential political costs on Capitol Hill if Obama proceeds on his own.
While the administration continues to express certainty that the Syrian government was responsible for the alleged Aug. 21 attack, the Associated Press, quoting U.S. intelligence officials, reported Thursday that such a case fell short of a “slam dunk” – a reference to then-CIA director George Tenet’s mistaken declaration that President Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the run-up to the Iraq War.
Some officials cited in the story said they could not entirely rule out the possibility that rebels were responsible for the attack on a Damascus suburb – as alleged by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
According to AP, officials could not tie Assad or his inner circle to any directive ordering the use of chemical weapons or even to foreknowledge of the attack, suggesting that the decision may have made by lower-ranking military officers or a rogue commander.
The administration has scheduled a telephone conference call with members of Congress for Thursday evening, but officials said the briefing would not include classified information that could confirm the nature of the attack or who was responsible. A White House spokesman said the administration still hopes to release an unclassified intelligence assessment by the weekend.
Meanwhile, the administration faced other problems overseas, not least of which was the refusal earlier this week of the Arab League to explicitly endorse a military attack and the appeals by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and his special envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, to await the findings of U.N. inspectors who have been in Syria this week investigating the site of the alleged attack, taking testimony and blood samples from its victims. Ban said Thursday the inspectors would not leave Syria until Saturday.
On Thursday, the British parliament voted against military intervention in Syria, leading Prime Minister David Cameron to say his country would not join the action in which he had previously pledged to participate, along with the leaders of France and Turkey.
Britain has long been Washington’s closest military ally, and most analysts consider it inconceivable that Obama would launch a strike, however limited, without allied and especially British support.
Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel, who during the administration’s deliberations late last week reportedly opposed striking, told reporters in Brunei Thursday that any action against Damascus would require “international collaboration”.
However, it appears now that whatever hopes the administration had earlier this week of carrying out “limited” military strikes for two or three days against Syrian targets as early as this weekend have dissipated.
It was widely believed that Obama had hoped to complete military operations against Syria before he left Tuesday Sept. 3 for the Group of 20 (G20) Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, that begins Thursday Sept. 5.
Most analysts here consider it highly unlikely that he would want to carry out an attack while being hosted by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad’s most-important international backer and Washington’s co-chair in long-stalled negotiations between Assad and opposition forces to end the civil war in Syria.
Moscow has threatened to veto any resolution at the U.N. Security Council that would authorise military action against Damascus, and U.S.-Russian relations are already at their lowest point since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
But growing domestic opposition to even limited strikes of the kind Obama suggested during a PBS interview Wednesday he would pursue may be more decisive.
As of Thursday morning, 140 members of the House of Representatives had signed a letter calling on Obama to gain Congressional approval before taking ay military action, according to the “Hill” newspaper.
“Engaging our military in Syria when no direct threat to the United States exists and without prior congressional authorisation would violate the separation of powers that is clearly delineated in the Constitution,” said the letter, which also charged that Obama’s participation in the NATO campaign against Libya in 2011 was unconstitutional because it lacked authorisation.
Over the last two days, a number of influential Democrats from both houses have also privately expressed serious reservations to the White House about attacking Syria, noting that even limited strikes could draw the United States into another Middle Eastern civil war.
“Simply lashing out with military force under the banner of ‘doing something’ will not secure our interests in Syria,” noted Washington Representative Adam Smith, the senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.
Recent public opinion polls suggest strong opposition to military action at the grassroots level. A Reuters/Ipsos poll taken Aug. 19-23 found that only a quarter of respondents said they would support U.S. military intervention if Assad used chemical weapons against the civilian population.
A Huffington Post/YouGov survey taken earlier this week found the same percent would support air strikes to aid Syrian rebels, while 41 percent were opposed. Thirty-one percent agreed with the statement that the U.S. has a responsibility to prevent Syria from using chemical weapons against rebels, while 38 percent disagreed.
Meanwhile, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the only independent international non-governmental organisation that has provided statistics regarding casualties resulting from the alleged attack and which reported Aug. 24 that three hospitals near the affected area had received 3,600 patients displaying neurotoxic symptoms, of whom 355 died, issued a formal statement Thursday “warn[ing] that its information could not be used as evidence to certify the precise origin” of the attack or designate “the perpetrators”.
It added that its previous statement should not “be used as a substitute for the [U.N.’s] investigation or as a justification for military action.”
In another statement released Thursday, Amnesty International said “the best course of action would be for the United Nations to complete its investigation into this latest outrage and for the United Nations Security Council to refer all evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity from this and other incidents to the International Criminal Court.”
The Council could consider other measures, it said, including “targeted economic sanctions and the deployment of international human rights monitors”.
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