An early withdrawal of the UN investigative team that is trying to determine exactly what happened during a suspected chemical attack near Damascus last week is offering an eery reminder of events that took place before the US began its invasion of Iraq in 2003, with the fear that once international observers have gone a US/NATO attack on Syria would be greenlighted for later in the weekend or early next week.
Though speculation based on anonymous reporting from high level officials in the US and Europe indicated a US-led campaign might start as early as Thursday, indications from both the US and UK show that though the rush to attack has been slowed by political opposition, the push for war continues.
As the Guardian reports, domestic politics in the UK have slowed Prime Minister David Cameron's hopes that approval for military action could sidestep Parliament.
Meanwhile, in a televised interview on PBS news on Wednesday night, President Obama said "no decision" has been made on attacking Syria though he spent the majority of the interview laying out his administration's case for why the US and its NATO and Gulf state allies may soon launch such an attack.
Asked what US military action—at this point still assumed to be a volley of cruise missiles from US warships in the Mediterranean or an aerial bombing campaign—would accomplish, Obama said that it would give the government of President Bashar al-Assad "a pretty strong signal not to do it again," meaning using chemical weapons.
Though the US has now repeatedly says it "knows" that the Assad regime was directly behind the attacks, they have offered no verifiable evidence to the public.
And some members of Congress are also trying to put the brakes on the attack, saying that even if chemical weapons are determined to have been used by Assad, the role for a US military campaign should not be a foregone conclusion.
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“Even if he (Syrian President Bashar Assad) did use chemical weapons, that doesn’t give the president the authority to attack Syria” without going to Congress, said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. “Our troops aren’t being attacked, our nation isn’t being attack. He has a responsibility to consult Congress first.”
And former UN weapons inspector Hans Blix goes a step further than that, saying that the argument for a US campaign against Syria is fundamentally flawed, with or without approval from Congress. In an op-ed in the Guardian on Thursday, he writes:
In 2003 the US and the UK and an alliance of "friendly states" invaded Iraq without the authorisation of the security council. A strong body of world opinion felt that this constituted a violation and an undermining of the UN charter. A quick punitive action in Syria today without UN authorisation would be another precedent, suggesting that great military powers can intervene militarily when they feel politically impelled to do so. (They did not intervene when Iraq used chemical weapons on a large scale in the war with Iran in the 1980s.)
So, what should the world reaction be to the use of chemical weapons? Clearly, evidence available – both from UN inspectors and from member states – should be placed before and judged by the security council. Even if the council could only conclude that chemical weapons had been used – and could not agree that the Assad regime alone was responsible – there would be a good chance of unanimous world condemnation. Global indignation about the use of chemical weapons is of value to strengthen the taboo.
Watch Obama's full PBS interview here: