Obama’s key line that the attack on Syria would be a short, surgical strike was designed to win over those who were appalled at Assad’s (virtually certain) use of chemical weapons and wanted him to be punished, but without risk of another long war. His latest deviation from this line – that the missile strike is part of a wider scenario leading to regime change in Damascus – was designed to win over key Republican leaders in order to help win the Congressional vote next week, but it will inevitably alarm and turn off those in the first category. Above all it will exasperate both Putin who for the first time yesterday hinted that he might under some circumstances (unspecified, but well worth exploring) reconsider Russia’s stance in the UN Security Council. It will also have displeased and destabilised Iran’s new liberal President, Rouhani, who has indicated willingness to negotiate with the West and to pursue ‘reason and moderation’. By trying to play contrary tunes to placate strongly opposed sections within his own domestic politics, Obama is in danger of alienating both as well as estranging his international interlocutors. US policy is in a dreadful muddle.
Obama got himself into this position by believing (naively) that the threat of American retaliation was enough to ensure that Assad kept to conventional weapons. That was the background to the red line speech several months ago. Assad, either through miscalculation or disheartened at the slowness of the military push-back against the rebels, called his bluff. Obama has never really wanted to intervene in Syria, but he is now hoist on his own petard – his own credibility is on the line. Yet still unable to steel himself to take the fateful decision to attack and clearly rattled by the Commons vote disengaging America’s closest ally, he hesitated and compromised by putting the matter to the vote in Congress. Even that device has now been turned by the suggestion emanating from the White House that the President could still trigger an attack even if Congress votes against. US policy now points all ways and no way.
Will the Commons vote be reversed if Congress or the President decide to attack? There can be no doubt that there will be intense pressure to take this course, including from the Blairite Right of the Labour party. Cameron himself would be keen to follow this course, but he won’t – not because it would be immoral, impractical or unconstitutional – but because he fears he would lose the vote again, quite likely by a larger majority given the restlessness on the Tory Right, and that would then certainly be the end of him. The patent lack of principle in the West and the avoidance of the obvious solution to convene a Geneva 2 regional conference of all the countries involved and their sponsors is not only allowing the Syrian nightmare to drag on, but also exposing the West as too riddled with self-interests to give a clear lead any more in world affairs.