There were fighting words this weekend between the Americans, the Syrian government and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, who warned Obama not to intervene in the conflict after a chemical weapons attack in Damascus last week left as many as 1,300 dead, sparked global outrage against Assad and put renewed pressure on Western governments to step in.
“It seems likely that President Obama will bomb Syria sometime in the coming weeks,” writes Slate’s Fred Kaplan. “His top civilian and military advisers are meeting in the White House on Saturday to discuss options. American warships are heading toward the area; those already there, at least one of which had been scheduled for a port call, are standing by.”
Kaplan points to a story I’d also found telling, in which The New York Times says that for Obama’s aides, the 1999 air war in Kosovo could be a “possible blueprint for action in Syria.”
On Sunday morning, an anonymous White House official released a statement saying the administration had “very little doubt” that the chemical attack on Ghouta had been Assad’s handiwork.
The Times has the statement: “Based on the reported number of victims, reported symptoms of those who were killed or injured, witness accounts and other facts gathered by open sources, the U.S. intelligence community, and international partners, there is very little doubt at this point that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime against civilians in this incident.”
“While administration officials emphasized that Mr. Obama had not decided to take action,” write Scott Shane and Ben Hubbard, “they said he was determined not to be drawn into a protracted debate over gaining access for the United Nations investigators, because of doubts that they could now produce credible findings.”
Obama has received criticism all year for his seeming ambivalence on an intervention in Syria. He spoke this weekend with both French President Francoise Hollande and British prime minister David Cameron, largely to gage whether the three could join forces in a strike against Assad.
So where were Assad’s own allies this weekend? Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who’d met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this month in an attempt to smooth increasingly frosty U.S.-Russia relations, warned his American counterpart against intervention.
In a Sunday call, Lavrov reportedly warned Kerry about the “extremely dangerous consequences” of military action, and said the U.S. should “refrain from using military pressure against Damascus and not give into provocations.”
The Syrian government itself finally granted U.N. inspectors permission to access the attack site in Ghouta, but the organization said it was “too late.” The Wall Street Journal, with Sam Dagher in Damascus, said the U.S. was busy ramping up its attack planning.
“The White House and Pentagon signaled the U.S. wasn’t backing away from a possible showdown despite apparent efforts by the Syrian government to ease tensions by letting U.N. inspectors visit areas near the capital where hundreds were killed,” write Dagher and Adam Entous.
“If he decides to act militarily, Mr. Obama would prefer to do so with U.N. Security Council backing, but officials said he could decide to work instead with international partners such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or the Arab League.”
The Los Angeles Times has both official and unofficial U.N. statements.
“U.N. officials confirmed that its inspection team, already in Syria to investigate previous allegations of chemical weapons use, would begin ‘on-site fact-finding activities’ Monday,” reports Christi Parsons. “The Syrians have ‘agreed to provide the necessary cooperation,’ including a ‘cessation of hostilities’ in the area,” according to the U.N.’s official statement.
But a senior administration official “brushed aside the Syrian offer.”
In an anonymous statement, the official said: “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 U.N. — five days ago.” The official also noted that Assad’s government will by now have had ample time to destroy evidence of a chemical attack, including by shelling the areas in question.