CAIRO – The Arab League on Tuesday declared the Syrian regime “fully responsible” for an alleged chemical weapons attack, giving the Obama administration symbolic regional cover to proceed with a punitive offensive that could begin within days.
Two U.S. defense officials told McClatchy that military commanders were ready to execute a sea-based strike but were awaiting orders from the White House. The officials said the attack would be carried out exclusively by the four destroyers currently based in the eastern Mediterranean and would not include airstrikes to supplement the expected missile barrage.
U.S. officials emphasized that any military action would be punishment for the Syrian government’s apparent use of chemical weapons, and not an operation to remove President Bashar Assad. That distinction is important to the Obama administration as it searches for a response that deters Assad from chemical warfare but doesn’t drag the United States into a devastating conflict that’s already spilling across borders and inflaming the Middle East.
Limiting military action to punitive strikes is also important to nervous Arab states that already are feeling trickle-down effects of the Syrian civil war: huge refugee populations, sectarian flare-ups and the regrouping of al-Qaida-style extremists. Should Assad be ousted abruptly, all those problems are only expected to metastasize, as no credible opposition authority is prepared to take charge, according to U.S. military and foreign policy analysts’ assessments.
Pushed by influential Persian Gulf states, the 22-member Arab League issued a strongly worded five-point statement after a two-hour session in Cairo. It called Syria “fully responsible for the ugly crime and demands that all the perpetrators of this heinous crime be presented for international trials.”
There was no discussion at the Arab League about the potential U.S. strike, though the tone of the statement suggested that the possibility of one drove its tough rhetoric.
While the Arab League is generally derided as an ineffectual organization, its tacit endorsement of a U.S.-led strike against Syria is important as the Obama administration cobbles together a coalition of Middle Eastern and European allies to avoid the delays and vetoes of trying to authorize action through the Security Council.