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Our View: Obama put his credibility on the line with Syria

US President Barack Obama will now shift his attention to the Senate Republicans

THE UNITED STATES has given President Bashar al-Assad one week to hand over his stock of chemical weapons. Failure to comply would lead to military attack, said secretary of state John Kerry yesterday, stressing the US administration’s intention to punish the Assad regime for the use of chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war. This is assuming the approval of Congress and the Senate is secured by the Obama administration.

Kerry, who admitted he did not expect the Assad regime to hand over its chemical weapons stock, explained what form the US attack would take. He said: “We will be able to hold Bashar al-Assad accountable without engaging troops on the ground or any other prolonged kind of effort in a very limited, very-targeted, short-term effort that degrades his capacity to deliver chemical weapons without assuming responsibility for Syria’s civil war. That is exactly what we are talking about doing – unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.”

In short, America would respond to the use of chemical weapons with some wrist-slapping, which raises another question – what does it hope to achieve by an “unbelievably small” strike? According to Kerry, if no action was taken when chemical weapons were used, “you are giving people complete licence to do whatever they want and to feel they can do so with impunity.” If the Assad regime carried on killing its enemies with conventional means, the US would not consider taking action.

The truth is that President Obama is obliged to take action because he put his credibility on the line when he said that the use of chemical weapons was a red line for the US and threatened consequences. He cannot now turn a blind eye to their deployment, even if the consequences he had threatened failed to achieve anything in Syria. The last thing the US would want would be to weaken the Ba’athist regime to such a degree that the rebel groups, some with close links to al-Qa’eda, would take over.

In contrast to Libya, regime change cannot be an objective in Syria, because nobody would want jihadi rebels controlling the country’s chemical weapons stock. This explains why Kerry spoke of an “unbelievably small” attack as it would protect Obama’s credibility, without, presumably, administering a weakening blow to the Assad regime. The US would just be making a gesture, to show that Obama’s warning was no idle threat.

However, all this talk may be academic if Congress, which is divided on the matter, decided to vote against an attack. This could turn out to be a face-saving way out for the president.

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