As it builds coalition on Syria, U.S faces skeptical allies
WASHINGTON (CNN) — An Israeli web site only has one question: Has the attack happened yet? The one-word answer: No. The joke in Israel is that everyone keeps turning to the site, which has more than 17,000 likes on Facebook, to see if the answer has changed to “yes.”
An Israeli dental clinic has also gotten into the game with a full-page ad for dental implants. Under a picture of President Obama, the question: “Got teeth?”
As it tries to build international support for action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for its alleged chemical attack, the Obama administration must confront an increasing lack of confidence among its allies. While billed as an effort to strengthen U.S. resolve, diplomats say President Barack Obama’s decision to seek authorization from Congress is playing out as weakness in a region concerned that Obama would show similar indecisiveness if faced with a nuclear Iran.
“If the Hill does not approve this, no one will believe Obama when he says he will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon,” one senior Arab diplomat said.
“They are opening the Champagne in Iran and probably switching to higher gear on their way to nuclear weapons,” Israeli Housing Minister Uri Ariel wrote on his Facebook page after Obama’s speech on Saturday. “With the world silent toward the atrocities in Syria, toward 100,000 testimonies buried in the ground, and after the clear use of weapons of mass destruction, we learn that when the day comes when we face real danger, no one in the world will stand at our side, and we can only defend ourselves.”
Ariel was one of few Israeli lawmakers ignoring a request from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who, at his cabinet meeting, asked government officials to keep silent about the “sensitive and delicate issues” at stake. Israeli officials said privately Obama’s invoking the need to protect Israel as he discusses Syria put their country in a difficult position in terms of how to respond.
“We are stuck in an impossible situation,” one senior Israeli official said. “If we endorse Obama’s message or publicly encourage him to act we are seen as weak or trying to drag America into a war it doesn’t need for Israel’s sake.
“If we stay on the sidelines, we are not seen as being supportive enough in calling for action. We totally do believe the international community, led by the United States, should do something because not acting is a signal to like-minded dictators they can act with impunity. But we want them to do it because it is a moral imperative for the world, not for our sake. We have always said we don’t rely on anyone for our security and can take care of ourselves.”
Israeli officials said the delay in acting against Syria is raising questions about Obama’s stated commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
“The psychological barrier has been broken, these weapons are being used on a periodic basis,” another senior Israeli official said. “So what does President Obama do when the information comes that the Iranians are making a breakout? This is what is on people’s minds. Next time President Obama meets Netanyahu and he says ‘I have your back,’ how can you trust what he is saying?”
While Israeli officials said they don’t believe al-Assad would risk Israeli retaliation by using chemical weapons against Israel, their use in Syria risks the agents falling into the wrong hands, such as al Qaeda-related groups like al-Nusra.
Israeli officials said the United States has not asked Israel for specific help with any military strike, although the two allies share a close intelligence relationship. Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with the Israeli prime minister in Rome next week. Although the meeting was scheduled to discuss ongoing efforts to reach a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians, Syria will also be on the agenda.
Kerry, who senior U.S. officials and diplomats say has been tasked with building international support for a coalition for action in Syria, also will meet with ministers from the Arab League while in Rome. Kerry told Democratic lawmakers in the U.S. on a conference call Monday that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have both offered military assets. On Sunday the Arab League passed a resolution saying the Syrian regime was responsible for chemical attacks and calling on the international community to take “deterrent” action against the regime.
But the measure fell short of explicitly calling for military strikes. Arab diplomats say the language was carefully worded to accommodate a few countries who are reluctant to strike Syria, such as Egypt, Iraq and Algeria, but that most members of the Arab League saw the statement as a tacit approval for the United States to act.
Turkey also has offered military support, as has France, and Kerry told the lawmakers he expected more nations to lend support in coming days.
But Washington’s European and NATO allies are divided over action.
After voicing strong support for military action, France now says it wants to build a coalition. Both French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron are playing a delicate balancing act as they try to build a case to join the United States in any possible military action against Syria. Canada, Germany and Italy said they won’t participate in any military intervention without a UN mandate.
In addition to his meetings with the Arabs in Rome, Kerry will also seek to build European support for action against Syria when he attends a meeting of EU foreign ministers next week in Lithuania. In addition to seeking military partners, senior State Department officials say Kerry will urge European allies to voice more public political support for action against Syria.
“We understand different countries have varying capabilities but being politically supportive is something every country can do. Regardless of whether they have military capabilities, they can contribute,” one senior State Department official said. “We want countries out there.”