Democracy thwarts punitive strikes on Syria for now

Just days ago, it looked like a done deal. The usual western suspects—the US, Britain and France—were determined to punish the Syrian regime for unleashing poisonous gas on its own citizens, with or without uncontestable proof. Military assets were positioned in the eastern Mediterranean.

The United Nations charter prohibiting attacks on a sovereign nation without a UN Security Council resolution was deemed unobtainable, due to Russian and Chinese objections. Pleas from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to “give peace a chance” and time to allow UN chemical weapons investigators to complete their report went unheeded.

Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron believed a parliamentary vote in favour of striking Syria was a mere technicality. It was unthinkable that the UK wouldn’t stand shoulder to shoulder with its closest ally across the pond. But Cameron failed to accurately judge the nation’s mood and, more particularly, the spectre of the Iraq war blunder that, until today, sours the public’s trust in intelligence assessments.

Cameron did his utmost to sell his case to members of British parliament, but was forced to admit there was no smoking gun as to the Bashar Al Assad regime’s culpability. Instead, he asked MPs to make a judgement call. His defeat came as a shock.

Not only did opposition parties line-up against him, at least 30 from his own Conservative Party abstained or voted against the motion, failed to turn up or went conveniently deaf when the bell rang to announce the ballot. The prime minister could have overridden lawmakers by using the Queens’s royal prerogative, but that slap in democracy’s face would not go unpunished by the electorate.

US President Barack Obama was not amused. One British daily splashed ‘R.I.P. to the Special Relationship’ on its front page. Thousands of Guardian and Telegraph posters opined that this was a good day for democracy; many conceding that while the UK risked losing influence on the world’s stage, they were sick of poodle prime ministers eager for strokes on Uncle Sam’s lap.

Some joked that Britons would now be condemned as fish ‘n’ chips-eating surrender bunnies. The US secretary of state acted like a toddler who throws his toys out of his playpen when he fails to get his own way. During an impassioned speech when Kerry hailed supportive friendly nations, France was held up as America’s oldest ally; Britain wasn’t mentioned. French President Francois Hollande enthusiastically embraced his day in the sun placing his military capabilities at Washington’s disposal.

Obama said the US was prepared to go it alone, if necessary, and as US allies backed away it seemed like ‘alone’ was the operative word. Syrians braced themselves for a volley of Tomahawk missiles.

Well-heeled Damascenes thought now would be a good time to go on a summer vacation in Beirut. Al Qaida and Jabhat Al Nusra worried that the US might use the opportunity to bomb their training camps. Syria’s political opposition was split between US cheerleaders and others who feared short, sharp, limited strikes, not designed to topple the regime, would only harden Al Assad’s resolve.

In the meantime, at least 200 members of US Congress rose up to demand why they weren’t being allowed a say. After all, Britain’s House of Commons had been respected and, as some senators pointed out, bypassing Congress would breach America’s constitution in cases where the country’s national security wasn’t directly threatened.

Obama was pictured looking visibly troubled, haunted by his own red lines. His allies heading for the hills, Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed allegations against Al Assad as “utter nonsense.” Polls show that Americans have little appetite to get embroiled in yet another Middle East conflict. And now Congress was lining up against him.

This is it . . . it’s really happening was the thinking of many glued to their screens awaiting Obama’s appearance in the Rose Garden on Saturday. With the cries of anti-war protesters reaching his ears, he announced his mind was made up. Al Assad had to be taught a lesson to deter him, as well as other rogue leaders, from using weapons of mass destruction.

And then he dropped a bombshell. America’s commander-in-chief would seek congressional approval for strikes on Syria as soon as lawmakers return from their August recess on September 9.

Obama is rolling the dice. His announcement has elicited mixed reactions. Some US politicians maintain he’s set a precedent that undermines presidential authority; others say the president has blinked. The majority believes he’s done the right thing. He’s got 5 days or so to strengthen his case but a positive outcome in the House and the Senate isn’t being judged as a given in light of the partisan nature of US politics. Obama risks embarrassment, but the bottom line is that the course he’s chosen is a win-win. If he receives a green light, he’ll be vindicated; if not, he can lay the blame for inaction on lily-livered lawmakers.

Democracy, it appears is contagious. France has declared that it, too, will seek parliamentary blessing before engaging with the US to strike Syria. “If this was a dictatorship it would be a lot easier . . . just as long as I’m the dictator,” said the Iraq War’s architect, George W. Bush. I’ll bet Obama and his European counterparts are secretly wishing the same.

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at

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