[You got to love guys wearing flannel lumberjack shirts, firing AK47s.]
The U.S. is moving toward possible military strikes against Syria without the public support of any major Arab ally, reflecting broad unease in the region about another Western military intervention.
The lack of public endorsement from Arab governments, even from Saudi Arabia and other countries that have helped arm, train and fund rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad leaves the West with little political cover regionally should any Western-led attack go badly.
Arab League delegates on Tuesday urged the United Nations Security Council, rather than the West, to take “deterrent” action against Syria to prevent a repeat of alleged chemical attacks on Aug. 21 in the suburbs of Damascus. In Cairo, Egypt Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy appeared to side against intervention, saying on Tuesday, “The solution for Syria must be diplomatic, not militaristic.”
While senior Saudi officials have been urging the U.S. and others behind the scenes to support tougher action in Syria, Arab leaders for more than a year have publicly maintained that any international military action there should be sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council, where Russia and China have blocked action.
In an atmosphere poisoned by persistent violence in Iraq 10 years after the U.S. invasion there, and by top-level disputes between the U.S. and its Mideast allies over the international response to revolutions in Egypt and elsewhere, the Arab world at large is split over whether the West should intervene.
“Don’t expect a big cheer from us,” said AbdulKhaleq Abdullah, a political-science professor in Dubai, of the likely response from the region. “If the results are fine, and the damage is very limited, I think that is gonna be a good sign. Maybe, ‘Wow, give America a D.’ ”
Turkey, in a newspaper interview by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu published Monday, became the first major Muslim Middle East ally of the U.S. to announce it would join an international military coalition against Syria, even without advance U.N. approval.
The weakest Arab states, Lebanon and Jordan, particularly fear possible retaliation and a further deluge of Syrian refugees in the event of a Syria strike.
In June, after a U.S. finding that Syrian government forces had used chemical weapons, U.S. military officials decided to keep fighter jets and Patriot missile batteries in Jordan.
A meeting of U.S., Saudi, and other Western and regional top military officials on Sunday and Monday was devoted mainly to reassuring Jordan of protection in the event of any disruption following a strike on neighboring Syria, as well as to try to plot responses to any further alleged use of chemical weapons by Syria, according to officials in Jordan and in the Gulf familiar with the proceedings.
In Jordan, where a U.S.- and Saudi-backed effort is helping train Syrian rebels, Jordanian King Abdullah publicly called for peaceful settlement. Jordanian officials have repeated that line over the past week.
Jordan already has taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria. Its fear is being “dragged into retaliation and war,” a senior Jordanian official said.
Saudi Arabia—for more than a year the strongest advocate of international action on Syria—has limited its public response to last week’s alleged chemical attack to statements by Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal calling for unspecified, decisive action under the U.N.
A Saudi cabinet statement repeated that position Monday night, after the U.S. made clear it was considering a military strike on Syria.
“Not yet,” a Saudi government spokesman said, when asked if the Saudi government had said whether it would support a military strike on Syria.
In principle, and in private, Saudi Arabia probably “would support any act to stop that war, or stop the use of gas,” said Anwar Eshki, a former adviser to Saudi Arabia’s council of ministers, or cabinet, and the head of a Saudi-based strategic research center. Mr. Eshki was referring to the use of poison gas.
Arab leaders, however, for regional political reasons, would think twice before saying in public that they back a Western-led attack on an Arab country, said Mr. Abdullah, the political-science professor at Emirates University in Dubai.
Overall in the Arab world, “People would just look the other way, and hopefully it is brief and surgical and doesn’t extend too far,” Mr. Abdullah said.
And if any intervention went wrong? “A big backlash, probably,” he predicted.
That response could be guided in part by how the Arab leadership publicly addresses the issue. “There has been no preparation done of Gulf audiences by leaders,” that would help reconcile Gulf and other Arab populations to an international military strike on Syria, said Michael Stephens, a Middle East analyst at the Royal United Services Institute in Qatar.
Many Arabs describe themselves as divided—wishing for action that would stop the killing in Syria, but not trusting the U.S. to do it right.
“Sometimes I do wish they would interfere, and sometimes I fear the same things that happened in Iraq will happen there. It’s a matter of trust, and now we don’t trust anyone,” said a Jordanian university professor working in Saudi Arabia, leaving a mosque set inside a sprawling Riyadh shopping mall after sunset prayers Monday night.
—Reem Abdellatif in Cairo contributed to this article.
By Andre Viollaz
NEW YORK — France’s President Francois Hollande on Tuesday became the first leader to raise the UN-backed “responsibility to protect” to justify possible military action against Syria.
However, world powers remain deeply divided over whether outside military intervention to halt atrocities is justified, with critics viewing the so-called R2P as a smoke screen for Western meddling in other countries’ internal affairs.
The so-called R2P doctrine was passed by the UN General Assembly in 2005 as the world sought a way to prevent a repeat of the horrors of the 1994 Rwanda genocide and the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia.
UN leaders from Kofi Annan onwards and Western governments have hailed R2P as a humanitarian breakthrough, but its invocation, most recently in the 2011 intervention in Libya, has been controversial.
A 2005 UN summit laid down the responsibility for each state “to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”
If a state fails to do so, the 2005 declaration committed signatories “to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII, on a case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations.”
The Security Council used R2P in resolutions on Libya and Ivory Coast in 2011.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon said the use of the doctrine “came of age” when used in the resolutions that allowed military force against Libya’s Moamer Kadhafi after his forces laid siege to the city of Benghazi and the dictator vowed to hunt down and kill rebels “house by house.”
Russia and China, veto-wielding permanent members of the UN Security Council, abstained in the votes on the landmark resolutions 1970 and 1973, which allowed a no-fly zone and appropriate military strikes to protect Libyan civilians.
Russia later complained, however, that NATO went beyond the mandate and used the resolutions to bring down Kadhafi, who was eventually killed in October 2011.
Russia and China have since blocked any Security Council attempt to increase pressure on Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, whose forces are now accused by Western nations of launching a chemical weapons strike in the Damascus suburbs last week that left hundreds dead.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said that any “outrageous” use of chemical weapons in Syria’s 29-month old conflict would be a war crime.
The responsibility to protect can be carried out through the International Criminal Court investigations into war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
But as Syria is not a member, only the Security Council could refer the case, and Russia is sure to block such a move.
Under a 1950 resolution, at the start of the Korean War, the UN General Assembly decided that if the Security Council was deadlocked, the 193-member assembly could step in to defend international peace and security.
The assembly could give its approval for a military operation now, but it would take time to build up a credible majority.
The US and Britain were battling to keep their plans for a weekend military strike against Syria on track after the UN secretary-general said time was needed to investigate allegations that the regime had used chemical weapons against civilians.
As the White House and Downing Street prepared to unveil evidence setting out how they claim Syrian government forces launched chemical weapons in an attack last week, officials in London said the Security Council had a “responsibility to act” in response to the atrocity.
However, Russia, the Assad regime’s most powerful ally, argued it was premature to discuss such a resolution while UN inspectors were in Syria investigating the allegations.
President Barack Obama told PBS on Wednesday that he “had made no decision” about any strike but the options that he had been given by his military would allow him to send “a pretty strong signal that (Syria) had better not do it again”.
In the first real sign of substantive congressional concern, John Boehner, the Republican House Speaker, released a letter to Mr Obama demanding he explain in detail any rationale for military action ahead of an attack.
Ban Ki-Moon, the UN secretary-general, threw up a further obstacle in the way of the apparent drive by Washington and London for military action this weekend. Speaking at The Hague, he said the UN inspectors would need four more days to carry out their investigation and then time for scientific analysis before reporting back to the Security Council.
A UN spokesman, Martin Nesirky, later clarified Mr Ban’s statement, saying he was referring to a total of four days. This timetable suggests that UN inspectors, who commenced their work in Syria on Monday, but who had their work suspended on Tuesday, would need until Friday to finish their tasks.
The US and its allies say a UN veto by Russia will not stop them taking military action. Western diplomats called the proposed resolution a manoeuvre to isolate Moscow and to rally a broader coalition behind air strikes.
But David Cameron, UK prime minister, was on Wednesday night compelled to back down on plans to hold a vote in the House of Commons on Thursday authorising military action in Syria after the opposition Labour leadership said more time was needed to gather evidence of chemical attacks by the Assad regime.
Douglas Alexander, shadow foreign secretary, said his Labour party, still haunted by its backing for the war in Iraq, would not support intervention in Syria until it had seen the government’s evidence.
Washington has repeatedly said Mr Obama has not yet made up his mind on what action he will order.
William Hague, British foreign secretary, said discussions at the UN would continue over “the coming days” but suggested after a meeting of Britain’s national security body that a Security Council resolution was not essential for a “legal and proportionate” strike.
“If there isn’t agreement at the UN, we still have a responsibility on chemical weapons,” he said. “We have to confront something that’s a war crime, that’s a crime against humanity.”
Russia and China have repeatedly vetoed calls for action against the Assad regime during the country’s two-and-a-half-year civil war.
Vladimir Titov, a Russian deputy foreign minister, called the UK resolution premature and urged the Security Council to wait until the chemical weapons inspectors had delivered their report, according to the Interfax news agency.
Mr Cameron earlier tweeted: “We’ve always said we want the UN Security Council to live up to its responsibilities on Syria. Today they have an opportunity to do that.”
Syria has denied using chemical weapons but the US, UK and France are convinced President Bashad al-Assad’s forces have deployed them.
On Wednesday the inspectors resumed their investigation into last week’s attack in which 300 people were killed. They revisited the site after being prevented from going into the area on Tuesday due to security concerns and having been shot at on their first attempt to reach the location on Monday.
If there isn’t agreement at the UN, we still have a responsibility on chemical weapons. We have to confront something that’s a war crime, that’s a crime against humanity– William Hague, British foreign secretary
If the UN Security Council is unable to agree a stance on Syria, some western officials have suggested the discussion could move to Nato in a move reminiscent of the 1999 war in Kosovo, where a bombing campaign was carried out by the alliance without explicit UN backing.
Nato ambassadors met in Brussels on Wednesday, and Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the alliance’s secretary-general, said afterwards that he believed “information available from a wide variety of sources” pointed to the Syrian regime as being responsible for the chemical weapons attack and strongly hinted the alliance was prepared to take action.
“Any use of such weapons is unacceptable and cannot go unanswered,” Mr Rasmussen said in a written statement. “Those responsible must be held accountable. We consider the use of chemical weapons as a threat to international peace and security.”
François Hollande, French president, announced that his country’s parliament would debate Syria on September 4.
Jordan, a staunch US ally, said it would not be used as a launch pad for any attacks, showing it does not want to stoke friction with its northern neighbour.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader and a longtime Assad ally, was quoted by the ISNA state news agency saying that a US strike would be “a disaster for the region”.
“The intervention of America will be a disaster for the region. The region is like a gunpowder store and the future cannot be predicted,” he reportedly said.
The prospect of a strike against Syria continued to affect markets on Wednesday. Oil prices are surging, gold is also rising and stocks are falling.
US West Texas Intermediate rose to $112.24, its highest since May 2011, and Brent crude oil futures jumped to a six-month peak of $117.34 a barrel. Both prices eased in later trading but were still up more than $1 since Tuesday.
Additional reporting by Elizabeth Rigby in London and Monavar Khalaj in Tehran