Arab League refuses to back military strike on Syria
Arab leaders face deep public hostility to any intervention and tangle of shifting rivalries
Arab League and United Nations special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi after a TV interview at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva yesterday. Photograph: Denis Balibouse/Reuters
The leaders of the Arab world have blamed the Syrian government for a chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds of people last week, but declined to back a retaliatory military strike, leaving President Barack Obama without the broad regional support he had for his last fresh military intervention in the Arab world - in Libya in 2011.
While the Obama administration has robust European backing and more muted Arab support for a strike on Syria, the position of the Arab League and the unlikelihood of securing authorisation from the UN Security Council complicate the legal and diplomatic case for the White House.
The White House said there was “no doubt” that President Bashar Assad’s government was responsible for the chemical weapons attack - an assessment shared by Britain, France and other allies - but it has yet to make clear if it has any intelligence directly linking Dr Assad to the attack. The administration said it planned to provide intelligence on the attack later this week.
As Mr Obama sought to shore up international support for military action, telephoning British prime minister David Cameron, administration officials said they did not regard the lack of an imprimatur from the Security Council or the Arab League as insurmountable hurdles, given the carnage last week.
US officials said the US did not seek an endorsement of military action from the Arab League. It sought condemnation of the use of chemical weapons and a clear assignment of responsibility for the attack to the Assad government, both of which the officials said they were satisfied they got.
The Obama administration has declined to spell out the legal justification that the president would use in ordering a strike, beyond saying that the large-scale use of chemical weapons violates international norms. But officials said he could draw on a range of treaties and statutes, from the Geneva Conventions to the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Mr Obama, they said, could also cite the need to protect a vulnerable population, as his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, did in ordering Nato’s 78-day air campaign on Kosovo in 1999. Or he could invoke the “responsibility to protect” principle cited by some officials to justify the US-led bombing campaign in Libya.
“There is no doubt here that chemical weapons were used on a massive scale on August 21 outside of Damascus,” said the White House spokesman, Jay Carney. “There is also very little doubt, and should be no doubt for anyone who approaches this logically, that the Syrian regime is responsible for the use of chemical weapons on August 21 outside of Damascus.”