WASHINGTON - The Obama administration began a full-press campaign on Sunday for Congressional approval of its plan to carry out a punitive strike against the Syrian government.
The lobbying blitz stretched from Capitol Hill, where the administration held its first classified briefing on Syria open to all lawmakers, to Cairo, where Secretary of State John Kerry reached Arab diplomats by phone in an attempt to rally international support for a firm response to the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus.
Ahead of an Arab League meeting in Cairo, Mr. Kerry sought to mobilize backing for American-led military action at a meeting the group held on Sunday night.
A statement that was issued by the league asserted that the Syrian government was "fully responsible" for the chemical weapons attack and asked the United Nations and the international community "to take the necessary measures against those who committed this crime."
To the satisfaction of American officials, the statement did not explicitly mention the United Nations Security Council or assert that military action could be taken only with its approval. But it stopped short of a direct call for Western military action against Syria.
Before the meeting got under way, the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, urged the international community to stop the Syrian government's "aggression" against its people.
Saudi Arabia has been one of the principal supporters of the Syrian opposition, and Mr. Kerry consulted by phone on Sunday with Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia's intelligence chief and secretary general of its national security council.
The Obama administration's calculation has been that a call for tough action by the Arab diplomats would enable the White House to argue to members of Congress that it had regional backing for military action and would make up, at least politically, for the British decision on Thursday not to join the American-led attack.
But Syria's government on Sunday defiantly mocked Mr. Obama's decision to turn to Congress, saying it was a sign of weakness. A state-run newspaper, Al Thawra, called the action "the start of the historic American retreat" and said Mr. Obama had put off an attack because of a "sense of implicit defeat and the disappearance of his allies."
Part of the White House strategy for securing Congressional support now is to emphasize not only what Syria did, but also how a failure to act against Syria might embolden enemies of Israel like Iran and Hezbollah.
Mr. Kerry, in his television appearances, said that if Congress passed a measure authorizing the use of force, it would send a firm message to Iran that the United States would not tolerate the fielding of a nuclear device, and thus safeguard Israel's security.
"I do not believe the Congress of the United States will turn its back on this moment," Mr. Kerry said on the NBC News program "Meet The Press." "The challenge of Iran, the challenges of the region, the challenge of standing up for and standing beside our ally, Israel, helping to shore up Jordan - all of these things are very, very powerful interests and I believe Congress will pass it."
David Fuller's view This postponement
has led to another relief rally today, which is also helped by a short-term
oversold condition. Arab opinion seems split along political & religious
grounds, although the US appears to have an important ally in Saudi Arabia.
However, Syria's government has two strong, armament-supplying allies in Russia and China. It's defiant comments quoted above suggest Syria is not too concerned about a limited, symbolic strike on weapons which it can at least partly relocate in civilian areas during the potential US-led strike's delay.
Meanwhile one of Secretary of State John Kerry's best-case arguments for a strike is that it would also send a message to Iran over its nuclear ambitions. On the other hand, one could argue that if the West will not target Syria's government over the use of poisonous gas, Iran has less 'need' of nuclear weapons. It is far from clear that a limited US strike against Syria will increase Israel's security.
Relief rallies aside, military conflicts and uncertainties in the Middle East will remain a concern for global investors, particularly if oil prices are also firming ahead of any planned US-led attack against Syria. However, since the US House of Representatives and the Senate will not be voting on a strike against Syria until after they have returned from recess on September 9th, today's oversold rally has the potential to continue for a few more days.
Here is a powerful column by Robert Fisk for The Independent, kindly forwarded by a subscriber: Iran, not Syria, is the West's real target.