How Will the USA Respond to the Syria Chemical Attack?

Do not expect any unilateral American action to respond to the chemical weapons attack in Syria, at least that is the upshot from an interview President Obama gave to CNN this morning.

Obama seems very reluctant to circumvent the Security Council.

CUOMO: Families certainly need the help. That’s for sure. Let me ask you about some of the emerging situations, most recently, Syria. You’ve seen the images; you know the situation very well. Do you believe at this point you need to investigate in order to say what seems obvious, which is, we need to do more to stop the violence in Syria, that the U.S. needs to do more?

OBAMA: Well, we are right now gathering information about this particular event, but I can say that unlike some of the evidence that we were trying to get earlier that led to a U.N. investigator going into Syria, what we’ve seen indicates that this is clearly a big event of grave concern. And, you know, we are already in communications with the entire international community. We’re moving through the U.N. to try to prompt better action from them. And we’ve called on the Syrian government to allow an investigation of the site, because U.N. inspectors are on the ground right now.

We don’t expect cooperation, given their past history, and, you know, what I do believe is that — although the situation in Syria is very difficult and the notion that the U.S. can somehow solve what is a sectarian, complex problem inside of Syria sometimes is overstated…

CUOMO: But delay can be deadly, right, Mr. President?

OBAMA: … there is — there is no doubt that when you start seeing chemical weapons used on a large scale — and, again, we’re still gathering information about this particular event, but it is very troublesome…

CUOMO: There’s strong proof they used them already, though, in the past.

OBAMA: … then that starts getting to some core national interests that the United States has, both in terms of us making sure that weapons of mass destruction are not proliferating, as well as needing to protect our allies, our bases in the region.

So, you know, I think it is fair to say that, as difficult as the problem is, this is something that is going to require America’s attention and hopefully the entire international community’s attention.

CUOMO: Senator McCain came on “New Day” very strong on this. He believes that the U.S.’s credibility in the region has been hurt, that a situation like Syria — that he believes there’s been delay, and it has led to a boldness by the regime there, that in Egypt, that what many believe was a coup wasn’t called a coup that led to the problems that we’re seeing there now, do you think that’s fair criticism?

OBAMA: Well, you know, I am sympathetic to Senator McCain’s passion for helping people work through what is an extraordinarily difficult and heartbreaking situation, both in Syria and in Egypt, and these two countries are in different situations.

But what I think the American people also expect me to do as president is to think through what we do from the perspective of, what is in our long-term national interests? And, you know, I — you know, sometimes what we’ve seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff, that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations, can result in us being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region.

So, you know, we remain the one indispensable nation. There’s a reason why, when you listen to what’s happened around Egypt and Syria, that everybody asks what the U.S. is doing. It’s because the United States continues to be the one country that people expect can do more than just simply protect their borders.

But that does not mean that we have to get involved with everything immediately. We have to think through strategically what’s going to be in our long-term national interests, even as we work cooperatively internationally to do everything we can to put pressure on those who would kill innocent civilians.

CUOMO: The red line comment that you made was about a year ago this week.

OBAMA: Right.

CUOMO: We know since then there have been things that should qualify for crossing that red line.

OBAMA: Well, Chris, I’ve got to — I’ve got to say this. The — when we take action — let’s just take the example of Syria. There are rules of international law.

CUOMO: Uh-huh.

OBAMA: And, you know, if the U.S. goes in and attacks another country without a U.N. mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it, do we have the coalition to make it work, and, you know, those are considerations that we have to take into account.

This strategy means there is a lot riding on whether or not the Syrian government permits the UN team access to the site of the attacks. But Obama admits that he does not expect the Syrian government to cooperate with the chemical weapons investigation team. Under normal circumstances, that is when the Security Council would step in and use the force of international law to compel Assad to permit the investigators access and threaten actions should he refuse.

If past is any prologue, the Council will not be able to respond in a robust, unified way. The key question is what happens then?