President Barack Obama could take military action against Syria without waiting for British support, senior Obama administration officials said yesterday (Thursday), as David Cameron faced waiting until next week for MPs to vote on whether to sanction air strikes.
The abrupt halt in British momentum towards military action left the diplomatic choreography in chaos and US officials "livid" with the British, according to Western diplomatic sources at the United Nations in New York. However, US officials said Mr Obama would not be constrained by waiting for a British parliamentary vote or by trying to forge a consensus at the UN where an "intransigent" Russia has made clear it would veto any resolution to use force.
Asked if the US would "go it alone" without Britain, a White House spokesman quoted William Hague saying that the US was "able to make their own decisions", adding that the administration appreciated UK support for a strong response to the chemical attacks. "We've also seen an acknowledgement from the Foreign Secretary about the United States' right and ability to make our own foreign policy decisions that are in our national security interest," said Josh Earnest, the White House deputy press secretary.
Obama, who spoke with some senior members of the US congress on the Syria debate, is due to leave for Sweden next Tuesday, followed by the G20 summit in Russia on Thursday and Friday. Analysts said Mr Obama was highly unlikely to unleash the targeted missile strikes while alongside the Russian President Vladimir Putin. "Why would you launch when Putin is sitting there? You either go before the trip to Russia or after and my guess is before," said Barry Pavel, a former White House defence official, adding that the US could launch attacks over the weekend once UN inspectors have left Damascus.
"Britain is important diplomatically, but not required, and not required militarily. The White House could move ahead without the British," he added. Ban Ki-Moon, the UN Secretary-General, said the UN inspection team in Syria would finish its work today (Friday) and meet him in New York tomorrow to discuss their findings.
The White House, however, said the UN inspectors' mandate was not to allocate blame but only to establish whether chemical weapons had been used - a fact that had been agreed by all sides. Mr Obama's dilemma over whether to act without direct British support follows Mr Cameron's climb-down on Wednesday over whether a House of Commons vote would be required to sanction UK military involvement. "The Americans are livid with us," said one Western diplomat. A furious-looking Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, refused to answer questions yesterday as she left a meeting of the Security Council permanent members, but later said on Twitter that the Syrian regime "must be held accountable, which the Security Council has refused to do for two years".
Obama said on Wednesday there was "no doubt" the Assad regime was behind the chemical weapons attacks that killed at least 350 people, arguing that a "limited" strike would send a clear message to Assad to "stop doing this". Seeking to justify the national security interest, Obama also said that the US could be at direct risk of proliferation of Syrian chemical weapons, a contention that was challenged by those opposing military action.