"I mean, we give lip service to the notion that these international norms are important." - President, Barack Obama, September 4, 2013.
But they may not be the ones you are thinking of.
To fully understand what is at play, it is necessary to largely ignore the US corporate media rabble, which continues to echo State Department and White House repetitions of the official, carefully tailored line of reasoning and moralizing without serious analysis or critique of the quite obvious underlying logic.
The US is not simply attacking Syria because chemical weapons were used and “1,429 civilians and 426 children” died, though this is the assumed, legitimate pretext.
So what is it?
In May 2013, Carla del Ponte acting in her capacity as inspector for the UN High Commissioner on Human rights published a report suggesting that rebel forces had used Sarin. The report was not conclusive, but the testimonial evidence remains as part of the public record on the issue and makes the picture unclear as to who, what and when regarding chemical weapons use, prior to the August 21st events in East Ghouta.
What is happening in Syria is a war; a complex war and perhaps a number of simultaneous wars at once. “Civil war” seems to be an understatement. Nonetheless, it is a war with two primary opposing sides: one having multiple competing factions and the other being the current Syrian government.
Each side has allies. On the rebel side are the Saudi Arabian and US funding and intelligence operations along with various factions, including al Qaeda affiliated jihadists - Jabhat al Nusra is one - and on the side of the Assad regime and its army are Iran and Russia supplying arms, funds and intelligence, with Hezbollah playing an assisting combat role.
The US knew of the May reports and dismissed them. The Russians called for further investigation. The dismissal meant that the use of chemical weapons would be, for the time, accepted; at least accepted to the extent that military action was not publicly contemplated as a response.
Once a single incident, East Ghouta, emerged and it seemed likely that a military unit of the Assad regime used chemical weapons, the calls for military strikes began. Despite the fact that the origin of the intelligence reports remained a muddled affair, the pace quickened and within hours, not days, the Obama Administration began making its case for immediate, US military strikes. Options had been drafted by the Joint Chiefs and were discussed in press briefings.
What seems to have not been anticipated was the public resistance to military action, not just in the US, but also in European nations and NATO. The British House of Commons no-vote after Prime Minister David Cameron’s impassioned plea there seemed to come as a jolt to the administration and the pace slowed.
Accentuating the point, John Kerry, front man for the administration, was caught metaphorically leaning off of the curb, thinking he was stepping down on terra firma then suddenly flailing his arms to not fall down when it was announced that, after all, the president would seek a vote in Congress.
Problematically, the US intelligence report is lacking in details, is not completely consistent with even the French and British intelligence reports on the same incident and has not been verified to be independent and conducted by certified experts. John Kerry, in his Colin Powell moment, went on record with an exact number of casualties: 1,429 dead, including 426 children. Nowhere else can these numbers be found. The French intelligence report released on September 2, indicates a number of 281 fatalities, while British intelligence reported “at least 350,” still less than a quarter of the number stated by the US. These inconsistencies and others throw the US version of events into question. The burden of proof is high as it should be. The WMD fiasco of the Iraq invasion has the American public and the world at large skeptical about US intelligence assessments and intentions.
For democracy to have meaning, an act of war must at a minimum, have public support. The proposed attack on Syria fails in this most important respect. Since international law is being disregarded, one assumes there must at least be allied support for such an action to provide some democratic justification but here the project fails as well. The British public opposes an attack and the British House of Commons voted it down. The French Prime Minister says he supports an attack (on the part of the US, not France), but sixty seven percent of the French public opposes such an action. The polling numbers are consistent throughout Europe and NATO.
For the US to commit an illegal act of war under such circumstances repeats the most dangerous precedent we can imagine: an empire disregards domestic and world opinion and with absolutely no legal standing under any domestic or international legal framework commits an act of war on a sovereign nation.
The harsh reality is this: the US opposes the Assad regime - regional ally of Iran - and this, not chemical weapons use is the reason for a US attack. It is not the number dead or even the method of killing; it is who is doing a certain kind of killing that is causing action. We are attacking the side we oppose, while showing a strange lack of curiosity about the terror, war crimes, beheadings, cannibalism, torture and probable chemical weapons use perpetrated by the other. The world sees the double standard.
So the question of US credibility is indeed on the line. In America it is placed only in the context of our president’s willingness to act militarily against a dictator who may have crossed a “red line” he set. This is a political dilemma for the president, but not a valid legal or moral principle. In the rest of the world the question is only relevant to the extent that he acts unilaterally and illegally against popular will and with sketchy evidence, thereby repeating within a single decade another reckless act of American Empire.