WASHINGTON - US President Barack Obama met his national security advisers Saturday to discuss the chemical weapons attack in Syria, with American media reports saying that one of the options considered was the NATO air war in Kosovo in late 1990s as a possible blueprint for military action against the Middle East country without a mandate from the United Nations.
The top-level meeting took place amid indications that military assets are being positioned for a possible response to the new developments in Syria.
Faced with the possibility of a Russian veto at the UN Security Council, President Obama is considering whether to order military strikes against Syria without UN Security Council’s approval, according to The New York Times.
In 1999, former president Bill Clinton used the endorsement of NATO and the pretext of protecting a vulnerable population to justify 78 days of airstrikes against Kosovo without UNSC’s endorsement.
President Obama indicated on Friday that doing so in Syria would require a robust international coalition.
“If the US goes in and attacks another country without a UN 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?” Obama said in an interview with CNN.
The Syrian government and the army categorically denied any role in Wednesday’s alleged chemical attack.
A senior administration official told the Times on condition of anonymity that the Kosovo precedent was one of many options being discussed in White House meetings on Syria.
The Washington Post quoted an unnamed official as saying, “We have a range of options available, and we are going to act very deliberately so that we’re making decisions consistent with our national interest, as well as our assessment of what can advance our objectives in Syria. Once we ascertain the facts, the president will make an informed decision about how to respond.”
The official gave no indication of the timing of a decision. The meeting will include a review of intelligence that has been gathered since Wednesday, when the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad allegedly launched a major chemical weapons barrage against an eastern suburb of Damascus.
Among the options at Obama’s disposal are cruise-missile-armed US ships currently in the Mediterranean.
Speaking to reporters Friday during a trip to the Far East, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel indicated assets in the region are being bolstered and repositioned to bring them within range of Syria.
Hagel declined to discuss any specific force movements, but said that “the Defence Department has a responsibility to provide the president with options for contingencies, and that requires positioning our forces, positioning our assets, to be able to carry out different options — whatever options the president might choose.”
The AP said that a fourth US warship had been sent to join others in the Mediterranean, but without any immediate orders to take action.
In the CNN interview Friday, Obama said he wanted to avoid “jumping into stuff that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations” and may not comport with international law.
But he described the situation as “grave” and said that his decision-making had been accelerated in the wake of the attack, in which opposition activists have said at least hundreds perished. He said the fast-moving crisis could affect “some core national interests that the United States has,” including nonproliferation and regional stability.
The administration has been in close contact with allies and partners from Britain to Turkey throughout the week, The Washington Post said. US officials have repeatedly indicated they would seek an international mandate or, at the very least, closely coordinate with partners.
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is also scheduled to meet Saturday with regional defence chiefs from the Middle East “to discuss the region’s dynamic security environment,” a Pentagon official said. The use of cruise missiles to strike Syrian military targets is one of a range of possible actions that Dempsey has said the Pentagon has prepared for Obama over the past several months.
Russia, Syria’s principal ally, has accused the opposition of staging Wednesday’s attack to discredit Assad. But all options have remained on hold pending confirmation of the chemical attack.
UN inspectors currently in Damascus have not yet been able to visit the site of the incident, as the United States and Russia have traded charges over which of Syria’s warring camps was blocking the probe.
In a series of statements Friday, the Russian Foreign Ministry said it had urged the Syrian government to permit the inspections and praised its “constructive approach.” But the ministry said there had been “no signals from the opposition .?.?. to ensure safe work of the UN experts in the territory it controls.”
At UN Headquarters In New York, Kevin Kennedy, acting head of the UN Department of Safety and Security, said his office was still awaiting permission. He said the department is conducting an assessment of the risks, after which it will make a recommendation on whether “it is a go or a no-go.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross has been unsuccessfully seeking government permission to visit Ghouta, the area where the attack took place, for more than six months, ICRC spokeswoman Rima Kamal said in a telephone interview from Damascus.
“The opposition is still in control there, and military operations have been ongoing in the area intermittently on and off for several months,” she said. This week, Kamal said, “was an escalation of military operations, but that’s not the exception.”