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Delay of airstrikes opens new push for diplomacy

As senior Obama administration officials sought support in Congress and abroad for a strike against the Syrian regime, other forces seized on the delay in a U.S. attack to make a last-ditch plea to avoid escalation.

Arguments against a U.S.-led intervention in Syria emerged from Washington think tanks to the halls of the Arab League to international humanitarian watchdogs. Observers of the conflict warned that such action was extremely risky and unlikely to benefit either the Syrian people or long-term Western interests in the Middle East.

Analysts instead urged that the United States lead a revived diplomatic push to get the warring parties to a negotiating table in the absence of any viable military solution to a bloody civil war that’s raged for more than two years. Striking now, the reasoning goes, runs the risk of widening the war in ways that only would cause more suffering and instability for Syria and its volatile neighbors.

“Critical pushback, both around the intelligence and the tactical arguments being made, is having an effect,” said Toby C. Jones, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “It’s putting pressure on the president to proceed more carefully and listen to these voices.”

President Barack Obama makes the case that a “limited, narrow” strike against President Bashar Assad’s regime is both a deserved punishment for Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons, and a strong message to Iran or any other hostile nations that the United States won’t tolerate the use of such arms in violation of international norms.

But the president’s request for authorization from Congress has created an unexpected opening for those arguing either against strikes, or for a broader strategy.

.“The president needs to show real leadership, not overreaction, sudden reversal, and uncertainty,” Anthony Cordesman, a former senior U.S. official who’s now with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote Sunday. “We need the president to shape a broad policy for the Syrian civil war even more than we need a far clearer policy for preventing the use of chemical weapons.”

Certainly, there are still supporters of U.S.-led action: a bloc in Congress that’s long urged the arming of Syrian rebels, Persian Gulf monarchies that seek the defeat of Iranian-backed Assad, foreign policy interventionists who argue that U.S. credibility is at stake, and a Syrian opposition that’s grown so desperate as to welcome strikes that even the U.S. government acknowledge won’t turn the tide of the civil war.

But the anti-intervention chorus appears to be growing, or at least it’s louder than just days ago, when the U.S. seemed on the verge of attack.

Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, switched stances in an op-ed published Sunday in The Washington Post. Though he once urged military action, Cook now argues that “the complex and dreadful evolution of the conflict has shaken the moral and strategic justifications for intervention.”

The Cairo-based Azhar, considered the highest authority for the Sunni branch of Islam, released a statement Sunday that decried the use of chemical weapons in Syria but also objected to any U.S. strike on the country as an assault on Arab and Muslim peoples, according to Egyptian news reports.

And while Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth didn’t explicitly oppose intervention in commentary posted on his group’s website, he echoed the worry that administration officials haven’t sufficiently evaluated the potential fallout, especially for civilians.

The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based nonprofit group that monitors global conflicts, on Sunday made the anti-interventionist camp’s case point by point.

The argument: there’s not even minimal international consensus, the Iraq war experience has bred deep skepticism of U.S. chemical weapons claims, a strike could invite payback chemical weapons attacks, the desperate rebels might stage such an attack to elicit a more forceful U.S. intervention, regime allies Iran and Hezbollah could retaliate and target Israel, and action might backfire in a propaganda victory for Assad as standing firm against Western meddling.

Other groups have noted that a strike could collapse the regime at a time when there’s no credible opposition political or military force to fill the vacuum. In that sense, a U.S. intervention could actually result in a boost to al Qaida, which is behind the most formidable of the rebel militias.

Many of those same concerns were voiced at the Arab League, where senior officials from across the region met Sunday in a special session. Desperate for a regional fig leaf for military action, the Obama administration had sought a strong message of support from the meeting.

Instead, U.S. partners such as Egypt and Libya pushed for diplomacy. And even Ahmed Jarba, head of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, ostensibly the U.S. civilian partner in the civil war, said he only reluctantly endorsed an intervention as he asked for support for a strike.

The Syrian uprising began as a call for “human justice and legal rights,” not foreign intervention, Jarba lamented. And he added that any strike should have international support.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy condemned foreign intervention in Syria, arguing that diplomatic channels had not yet been exhausted. He’s previously said Egypt, the recipient of billions of dollars in U.S. military aid, would not be joining any U.S. action.

“Egypt encourages finding of political solution,” Fahmy told the assembly, though he offered no specific steps on how that might happen.

Allam reported from Norman, Oklahoma. Youssef reported from Cairo.

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