Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Syria: Ready, aim...wait a minute

Syria: Ready, aim...wait a minute

To say that Saturday's White House decision to delay a military strike on Syrian targets in order to seek Congressional approval was unexpected would be an understatement. But when you are the commander-in-chief of a very powerful military and the political leader of a democratic country that is at best lukewarm about such military action, your political calculations are somewhat different to the regional anti-Assad forces who have expressed their disappointment at the announcement.

I defer to those more conversant with US politics to comment on Obama's domestic political reasons for wanting Congress to authorise his decision to use force against Syria. But in the absence of a UNSC resolution, the inability of the Arab League to agree that something should be done (no surprises there) and Westminster's vote to deny Prime Minister Cameron political agreement for British participation in strikes, it must have felt awfully lonely at the White House.

The idea of Congress sharing responsibility for a military strike (with all the international criticism and civilian casualties that could result) must have appeared just too appealing. There is also some speculation that the authorisation sought by the White House could give the president significant leeway in what he targets if he believes it is related to Syrian WMD. [fold]

The delay imposed by the president would, on the face of it, work to the Assad regime's advantage by giving it more time to disperse possible targets, or move them to populated areas, or within buildings used by non-combatants. But in all likelihood this would already have happened, and President Obama noted that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had told him the US capacity to execute the mission was not time-sensitive.

The intriguing thing about such a claim is that the targets themselves would, as a consequence, appear not to be time-sensitive either. This indicates that the targets would either be fixed installations such as permanent headquarters and airbases, or large mobile targets such as launch sites that can be moved but could be tracked by Washington's suite of surveillance assets.

There appears little if any doubt that limited military action is still coming, and John Kerry was quick off the mark to claim that the use of Sarin in Syria had been confirmed. Nevertheless, it would have been interesting to know exactly what Obama and his chief of staff said during their 45-minute walk following his national security meeting.

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