The Obama administration's plans to carry out a limited air strike against Syria may be delayed until Tuesday thanks to political opposition in the U.K. Parliament. How would British opposition to an American military action throw off the whole schedule? The U.S. and the U.K., according to a Guardian report, seem to be jointly pursuing support for a military strike. And while it looks like the president believes he has all the support he needs to move those plans forward, things have become more complicated in the U.K. Because of that, the U.S. is apparently giving Cameron a "lifeline" so he can quell an anticipated "revolt" in Parliament, as opposition to military action in Syria grows there.
The U.S. has repeatedly refused to give a timeline for what everyone's assuming will be a limited, retaliatory military air strike against Syria as punishment for a deadly chemical attack .While a number of details on the administration's plans for retaliation have leaked to the media, the President, on Wednesday, repeated his assertion that he has not yet made a decision on Syria, noting that he's still considering the options on the table:
But the administration is clearly trying to present a justification for any sort of limited strike or military attack ahead of time, stepping up their language on who bears responsibility for the attack over the past few days. Today, State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf told reporters that the U.S. had "smoking gun" evidence of a Syria chemical attack, evidence that implicates Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's government. Said evidence is reportedly an intercepted phone call between Syrian officials.
According to the Guardian's sources, the U.S. and the U.K. will release a joint intelligence report justifying a military strike against Syria on Thursday. The evidence summarized in that report, including the intercepted conversation, seems to be all the White House believes is necessary to move forward against Syria. The U.S. was planning to go ahead with military retaliation soon after that, probably over the weekend. But in the U.K., legislators would like to wait for a promised U.N. report on evidence of the chemical attack near Damascus. A spokesperson for Cameron said to the Guardian:
"The prime minister is acutely aware of the deep concerns in the country caused by what happened over Iraq. That's why we are committed to taking action to deal with this war crime – but taking action in the right way, proceeding on a consensual basis."
"So this motion endorses the government's consistent approach that we should take action in response to Assad's chemical weapons attack; reflects the need to proceed on a consensual basis, taking account of the work done by weapons inspectors; and reflects the prime minister's respect for the UN process – something he made clear to President Obama several days ago."
U.N. investigators, currently in Syria, could take until next week (or longer) to release their findings on the chemical attack. Meanwhile, the U.K. asked the U.N. Security Council to consider another resolution authorizing a military response in Syria, while the U.S. is in the midst of building a legal case to act without that authorization. Russia, so far, has vetoed any attempt by the council to approve retaliation against their ally, so it's unlikely that the latest attempt would produce Cameron's desired result. The U.S. has vowed to act without U.N. support if needed, and their reported delay, for Cameron's benefit, could well be limited to Tuesday: that's when President Obama leaves for the G20 summit in Russia.
Back in the U.S., Obama's retaliation plans aren't without opposition among legislators, either. Members of the U.S. congressional intelligence committees in the House and Senate are reportedly unhappy with the "brief status updates" from the White House on the Syria plans. Speaker of the House John Boehner sent an open letter to the White House with a similar criticism, writing, "I have conferred with the chairmen of the national security committees who have received initial outreach from senior Administration officials...the outreach has, to date, not reached the level of substantive consultation." 116 lawmakers signed a letter this week urging the president to go to Congress for authorization.
Update, 8:40 p.m.: The Associated Press has more details on delays surrounding the Obama administration's plans to launch a military retaliation on Syria. As indicated by previous reports, the "smoking gun" intelligence of an intercepted call between two Syrian officials discussing chemical weapons doesn't answer some of the questions the administration would like to clear up after all:
...the communications don't specifically link the attack to an official senior enough to tie the killings to Assad himself, according to one U.S. intelligence official and two other U.S. officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the intelligence publicly.
The White House ideally wants intelligence that links the attack directly to Assad or someone in his inner circle, to rule out the possibility that a rogue element of the military decided to use chemical weapons without Assad's authorization.
That quest for added intelligence has delayed the release of the report by the Office of the Director for National Intelligence laying out evidence against Assad.
Update 9:06 p.m.: Laura Rozen at the Al-Monitor, speaking to an anonymous official in the U.S. administration, learned that the U.S. was prepared to go ahead on Syria action without the U.K., if necessary. Here's what they told her:
While Washington will want UK participation, it “will be more concerned to get it done quickly,” a former U.S. administration official told Al-Monitor Wednesday, on condition of anonymity. The Obama administration “will accept that the UK needs a few days, but if [British Prime Minister David] Cameron doesn’t get [his ducks] in a row, they will not accept any more delays and not let it stop them.”
Update 11:19 p.m.: The New York Times, too, reports that the U.S. doesn't actually have any evidence tying Assad, or his senior command, directly to the chemical attack. The State Department, however, had a response to that point:
“The commander in chief of any military is ultimately responsible for decisions made under their leadership,” said the State Department’s deputy spokeswoman, Marie Harf — even if, she added, “He’s not the one who pushes the button or says ‘go’ on this.”