While the Arab League is generally derided as an ineffectual organization, its tacit endorsement of a U.S.-led strike against Syria is important as the Obama administration cobbles together a coalition of Middle Eastern and European allies to avoid the delays and vetoes of trying to authorize action through the U.N. Security Council.
I think its very significant because it shows there are countries in the region that are concerned and want NATO to act, said Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. I think of what happened with Libya a few years ago. There was a resolution from the Arab League to intervene. It makes it easier for the administration and provides cover because there is support.
While U.S. officials hint of impending action, the timing is proving tricky. Wednesday is unlikely because it would force President Barack Obama into the awkward position of attacking Syria on a day commemorating the nonviolent March on Washington by civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Thursday, too, would be problematic because thats when the British Parliament convenes to discuss a Syria response, and the U.S. is counting on British backing.
British Prime Minister David Cameron called Parliament back as news agencies reported that commercial pilots near Cyprus had spotted British C-130s and radar images of small formations of fighter jets heading to Britains Akrotiri airbase on Cyprus, which is only about 150 miles from Syria.
Still, in the United Kingdom not everyone was sure that the time for intervention had arrived. The Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander told the BBC that as far as committing British troops, neither he nor other members of Parliament were prepared to write the government a blank check.
An Istanbul-based Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the delicate politics of an intervention, also said its unclear when a strike might occur, speculating that it could take up to a month before the United States and its allies reach an agreement on specific action.
The diplomat noted that the Saudis and the Turks, two regional heavyweights, were scheduled to meet in Riyadh this week, followed by a Gulf Cooperation Council meeting on Sept. 2 and a meeting of Arab League foreign ministers on Sept. 3. Then theres the U.N. General Assembly and the St. Petersburg G8 summit at the end of September, when the Americans might try one final push to get the Russians and other holdouts on board.
The Americans are interested in creating an international legitimacy for the intervention, the diplomat said. They dont want to be alone. They dont want to be accused of being a unilateral power.
At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney declined to say whether Obama would seek permission from the United Nations for any potential action on Syria. He gave no hints as to timing or scope, but he made it clear the administration would act against Assad.
There must be a response, Carney said. We cannot allow this kind of violation of an international norm, with all the attendant grave consequences that it represents, to go unanswered. What form that response will take is what the president is assessing now with his team.
Youssef reported from Cairo; Allam reported from Washington. James Rosen, Lesley Clark, William Douglas and Anita Kumar contributed from Washington. Matthew Schofield contributed from Berlin; Jonathan S. Landay contributed from Cairo and Roy Gutman from Istanbul.