Wednesday, August 28, 2013

How Europe emboldened Obama on Syria

[Originally posted at NOW]

UK and France played significant role in persuading Obama to act on alleged chemical weapons attack, say analysts

The six days that have passed since an alleged chemical weapons attack by the Syrian regime reportedly killed over 1,000 in the suburbs of Damascus have seen an unprecedented shift in the US government’s approach to the country’s devastating conflict. Having said as recently as Friday that he sought to avoid “being drawn into” any kind of military intervention in Syria, US President Barack Obama evidently underwent a significant change of heart over the weekend, with his Secretary of State John Kerry vowing in a strongly-worded statement Monday that there would be “accountability” for the “moral obscenity” he said was “undeniably” carried out by the Syrian regime in the East Ghouta neighborhood last Wednesday. On Tuesday, Western envoys reportedly told opposition leaders to expect a series of missile strikes on Syrian targets “within days.”

In concert with this reorientation has been a sustained and forceful advocacy campaign by European nations, particularly Britain and France. Just one day after reports of the chemical weapons attack emerged from Damascus, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius urged the use of “force” in response. On Monday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague declared that military action could and should be taken with or without UN Security Council approval, while Fabius said, “The only option that I do not envisage is to do nothing.” As though to underscore its message, Britain readied its naval vessels in the Mediterranean for a series of cruise missile strikes, and deployed fighter jets and transport planes to its sovereign base in Cyprus.

This encouragement from Europe has been a significant factor in convincing Obama that a military response to the alleged chemical attack is the appropriate course of action, according to analysts.

“It’s been the case that Britain and France have been out in front [of the US] for some time on the Syria intervention question,” said Dr. Alan Mendoza, founder and executive director of the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based think tank whose affiliates include members of UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s cabinet.

“Even before the latest developments, there were calls, particularly from France but also from David Cameron who has, I think, faced significant opposition from his backbenchers on the subject but has still maintained that he would like to do more for the Syrian people,” said Mendoza.

“[Britain and France] have been more forward-leaning [than the US,] not only now but in terms of different trade and assist programs that have been underway, in terms of engagement with the [Syrian] opposition, supporting different humanitarian aid efforts and development programs, a lot of the smaller things that you don’t hear about but have been really crucial in terms of international community outreach,” added Elizabeth O’Bagy, senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War and political director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force.

In terms of what motivates the Europeans to favor a more hardline approach to the Syrian regime, Mendoza argues it is chiefly attributable to the politicians’ personal convictions, particularly in the case of Cameron, whose interventionist stance is opposed not only by rivals in the Labour party but also a sizeable contingent within his own Conservative party.

“I think it’s a personal principle. The PM looks at this in a slightly different way to backbenchers who are looking at their own domestic constituents’ concerns. He’s looking at the international picture, at what’s happening in Syria, the broader strategic problems, the humanitarian nightmare. And he’s taken a principled stance, as well as, by the way, the strategically sensible stance that Britain needs to be involved.”

As for the French, domestic considerations may play a bigger role, says Mendoza. “Given the problems that [President Francois] Hollande faces at home, something like this would make it look a world leader and might assist in popularity in terms of restoring its political position. That said […] the French have always been out there on these issues. Remember the French together with the British led the Libya campaign as well.”

Indeed, even in Britain, Mendoza believes the British parliament might vote for a one-off, limited operation when it convenes on Thursday to debate the question.

“I think if chemical weapons use is proven, you will get a majority in the House of Commons who favor a response on that point. I’m not sure we’ll have a majority for a longer-term campaign.” In any case, the prime minister can legally make the decision to act without parliament’s approval, according to the BBC.

Finally, as much as these nations’ enthusiasm for action in Syria may have persuaded Obama, the president had sufficient reason of his own to act on Syria’s violation of what for over a year he had described as his “red line,” said analysts.

“To be frank I think it’s mostly because of what happened [in Damascus,] and the fact that this chemical weapon use, especially to this degree, has always been the ‘red line,’” said O’Bagy.

Mendoza agreed: “I think [Obama’s] been backed into a corner and if he wants to preserve any credibility internationally he has to make good on his own suggestion that there are ‘red lines’ that can’t be crossed.”

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