Editorial: Obama move sets Congress a test on Syrian action

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President Barack Obama. Photo / AP
President Barack Obama. Photo / AP

Nearly two weeks have elapsed since the world saw film of Syrians suffering and dying from the effects of a chemical weapon. There seems no doubt the Assad regime is responsible. Yet for nearly two weeks there has been no response from the United States despite President Barack Obama's warning a year ago that use of chemical weapons would be a "red line" for him.

On Saturday, with ships and missiles in position and waiting for his word, the President handed his dilemma to the US Congress, inviting legislators to make the decision. This is not the behaviour Americans expect of their commander-in-chief but it does put the Congress in an unfamiliar role. The Senate and House of Representatives are accustomed to being asked for supporting resolutions only after the President has made his intentions clear and he is asking for their national loyalty.

This time, though the President says he wants to make a punitive strike, he is not pressing a case strongly. He seems genuinely willing to let Congress make the call.

The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, plans to schedule public hearings on the question this week and hold a vote next week. Speaker John Boehner expects the House will also consider a resolution next week.

Already it is a fair bet few in Syria are still holding their breath. Certainly not Bashar al-Assad and his henchmen, nor the rebels if they had hoped toxic weapons would bring about a Western intervention. It is clear that Western governments do not know what to do and Western public opinion is evenly divided on whether anything should be attempted.

The President passed the buck at the weekend with people on both sides of the issue demonstrating outside the White House. The Congress is likely to be equally divided. For every American who feels compelled to do what they can against the atrocity of August 21, another will be wary of becoming embroiled in another Middle Eastern war.

The decision should not be made by Americans alone but, as usual, the United Nations is rendered ineffective by a Chinese or Russian veto. The Nato allies are also unwilling to intervene in Syria as they did in Serbia to end the Kosovo conflict. Only France is offering the US support. The British Government, to its surprise, has had its participation in a punitive strike defeated in Parliament.

Prime Minister David Cameron sounded a little too accepting of his defeat. Like President Obama, he may be relieved to be over-ruled by a legislature. As responsible world leaders they need to express their disgust at the use of these weapons by threatening a military response, but they probably know it is unlikely to be effective.

At best, a missile strike might change the balance of the war and lead to the overthrow of the regime. But what might replace it? Possibly an Islamist regime allied to Iran. Possibly a fractured country with several rebel groups continuing to fight for ascendancy.

At worst, a missile strike at the regime's chemical weapons stores might do little damage to its capacity to survive, and even lend it some standing in a region where America is distrusted and its interference never welcome. Syria is densely populated and the risk of a strike to innocent lives is too high.

Yet something should be done. Chemical weapons must not be used with impunity. The more weeks that pass with no response, the harder it becomes to punish this outrage. Mr Obama has put the problem squarely in the Congress' court. It will be an interesting test of its capacity to agree on action that makes it clear chemical weapons remain unacceptable everywhere.

- NZ Herald

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