CAIRO -- The Arab League on Tuesday declared the Syrian regime fully responsible for an alleged chemical weapons attack, giving the Obama administration symbolic regional cover to proceed with a punitive offensive that could begin within days.
Two U.S. defense officials, speaking on condition of anonymity so as to discuss sensitive military plans, told McClatchy that military commanders were ready to execute a sea-based strike but were awaiting orders from the White House. The officials said the attack would be carried out exclusively by the four destroyers currently based in the eastern Mediterranean and would not include airstrikes to supplement the expected missile barrage.
U.S. officials emphasized that any military action would be punishment for the Syrian governments apparent use of chemical weapons, and not an operation to remove President Bashar Assad. That distinction is important to the Obama administration as it searches for a response that deters Assad from chemical warfare but doesnt drag the United States into a devastating conflict thats already spilling across borders and inflaming the Middle East.
Vice President Joe Biden told the American Legion National Convention in Houston that there was no doubt the Assad regime was responsible for the heinous use of chemical weapons.
Chemical weapons have been used. Everyone acknowledges their use. No one doubts that innocent men, women and children have been the victims of chemical weapons attacks in Syria, Biden said Tuesday.
Biden, who met with Secretary of State John Kerry for breakfast and also spoke with British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, didnt allude to any specific intervention, but he warned that those who use chemical weapons against defenseless men, women and children should and must be held accountable.
Limiting military action to punitive strikes is also important to nervous Arab states that already are feeling trickle-down effects of the Syrian civil war: huge refugee populations, sectarian flare-ups and the regrouping of al Qaida-style extremists. Should Assad be ousted abruptly, all those problems are only expected to metastasize, as no credible opposition authority is prepared to take charge, according to U.S. military and foreign policy analysts assessments.
Pushed by influential Persian Gulf states, the 22-member Arab League issued a strongly worded five-point statement after a two-hour session in Cairo. It called Syria fully responsible for the ugly crime and demands that all the perpetrators of this heinous crime be presented for international trials.
There was no discussion at the Arab League about the potential U.S. strike, though the tone of the statement suggested that the possibility of one drove its tough rhetoric. The league also said the United Nations Security Council should put aside internal differences and pass the necessary resolutions against the perpetrators of this crime, a reference to a suspected chemical attack a week ago that killed hundreds of Syrians in an eastern suburb of Damascus.
Without directly blaming the Assad regime, Arab League Secretary General Nabil el Araby said that what happened was a flagrant violation of international humanitarian law. That language echoed the words of Secretary of State John Kerry, who twice spoke with Araby by phone Monday, before the league convened.