x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Syria and Iraq: 'There's no comparison'

Ten years after George W Bush brushed aside the UN Security Council to invade Iraq, Barack Obama is prepared to strike Syria without UN approval while insisting this time it's different.

A Free Syrian Army fighter and fellow fighters escort a convoy of UN vehicles carrying a team of chemical weapons experts at a site of an alleged chemical weapons attack in Damascus.
A Free Syrian Army fighter and fellow fighters escort a convoy of UN vehicles carrying a team of chemical weapons experts at a site of an alleged chemical weapons attack in Damascus.

NEW YORK // Ten years after George W Bush brushed aside the UN Security Council to invade Iraq, Barack Obama is prepared to strike Syria without UN approval while insisting this time it's different.

With zero chance of the UN Security Council backing a British resolution calling for "measures" against Syria's president, Bashar Al Assad, there is talk of a "coalition of the willing", reminiscent of the group gathered by Mr Bush to oust Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Russia, Mr Al Assad's key ally, and China have seized upon similarities with the 2003 war launched on the basis of false intelligence.

Mr Obama promised when he became the US president to seek greater international legitimacy. But the growing certainty of the United States, Britain and France that Mr Al Assad allowed a devastating chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs last week has forced his hand.

John Kerry, the US secretary of state, who said the way Mr Bush went to war was "a mistake" has called the suspected use of the banned weapons a "moral obscenity" for which someone must be held accountable.

"This time really is different," said Richard Gowan of New York University's Centre on International Cooperation.

"Only a very determined conspiracy theorist would believe that Obama previously desired to get to this moment, in contrast to the Bush administration's all-too-clear intent to invade Iraq in 2003."

In 2003, Germany and France opposed the Iraq war, while Britain backed Mr Bush. This time the European powers are united. Francois Hollande, France's president, has invoked the international right to protect civilians.

But firing a cruise missile at Syria will be easier than getting accord among the UN Security Council's 15 members on ending the Syria conflict that has left more than 100,000 dead. Russia and China have vetoed three proposed council resolutions that would have increased pressure on Mr Al Assad.

"Russia and China will doubtless condemn any military action, but the United States can be fairly confident that it has a strong moral case for action against Syria. And Obama's previous restraint should help him argue that case internationally," Mr Gowan said.

"The UN Security Council is not the sole or unique custodian about what is legal and what is legitimate," said Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations think tank and a former senior US diplomat.

"It would allow in this case a country like Russia to be the arbiter of international law and more broadly international relations." The United States cannot allow this, he said.

Mr Haass said any military action must be to back Mr Obama's vow that Mr Al Assad's use of banned chemical weapons of mass destruction was crossing "a red line".

"My sense is that the administration is trying to find something of a halfway house. Something that is large enough to reinforce the norm against WMD use, something that is large enough to make a statement about red lines credible, at the same time something that is not so large or so open-ended in any way that it makes the United States a de facto protagonist in the civil war."

The Security Council was also bypassed when Nato launched air strikes to halt Serbia's assault on Kosovo in 1999. And Mr Haass said the United States and its allies could again "demonstrate a degree of multilateralism" through Nato, Arab countries who oppose Mr Al Assad and others.

"You could put together some kind of a coalition of the willing," he said, predicting that dozens of countries could join.

Some countries have expressed caution however.

Carl Bildt, Sweden's foreign minister, said an attempt must be made for UN Security Council action and that it was "important" to see a report by the UN inspectors investigating the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

"I would like to see some kind of formal proof that chemical weapons were used before action is launched," said one UN ambassador from a close US ally.

"Obama will find that international support for US military action will fade very quickly if he shifts from limited, punitive actions related to the use of chemical weapons to pursuing regime change," said NYU's Mr Gowan.