Obama buys time and space on Syria. He must use it to explore diplomatic options
In delaying the air strikes on Syria until the US Congress approves them,President Barack Obama has evidently sought to limit some of the political risks associated with dragging America into yet another war in the Middle East. With the Congress currently in recess,Obama gains some time before embarking on a no-win military venture in Syria. Obamas surprising decision on Saturday came hours after US Secretary of State John Kerry made a strong case for the bombing of Syria and signalled its imminence. In opting for a deliberate delay,Obama is acknowledging the deep divisions at home and abroad on the question of using military force in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Bashar al-Assad regime.
On the international front,the UN Security Council is unwilling to lend legitimacy to the American bombing of Syria. China has cautioned against it and Russia is actively opposed. Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed the charge of Syrian chemical weapon use as nonsense. While few in Washington expected support from Beijing and Moscow,the British Parliaments rejection of Prime Minister David Camerons call to join the US military campaign in Syria last week is a big surprise. For long the loyal shooting buddy of Washington,London no longer seems to have the appetite for wars in the Muslim world. Many of the Sunni Arab regimes would like to see America punish Assad,but are unwilling to provide strong public endorsement of US military actions.
After the prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,there is little popular enthusiasm in America for bearing additional military burdens in the Middle East. Although vocal sections of Washingtons foreign policy elite are baying for Assads blood,opinion polls suggest a significant majority of the American public is against the use of military force. This is reflected in the US Congress,where many members from both the parties,Democratic and Republican,are speaking up against US air strikes on Syria. In turning to the Congress,Obama has created space for an extended debate at home on Syria that will make the Republicans complicit in the eventual choices made. Meanwhile,Obama has a small opportunity to explore diplomatic options on Syria when he meets the world leaders on the margins of the G-20 summit in Russia this week.