Is a US attack on Syria now inevitable?

US warships in the Middle East file picture 2008 US warships are in the Middle East, but no orders for deployment have been given

The tone of the White House changed over the weekend.

It is now much harsher towards the Syrian government - more certain that the deaths last week were caused by a chemical weapons attack and that it was carried out by President Bashar al-Assad's government.

A statement derided the idea of the inspectors being allowed in now, suggesting shelling had already destroyed the evidence.

Doubtless, there will be similarly pointed words about the shooting at the inspectors as they attempted to begin an investigation.

US President Barack Obama was given a range of military options and spoke to the leaders of his key military allies, Britain and France.

Three US warships are in the region and another is heading there. Many in Congress are calling for them to carry out a limited cruise missile strike.

It all seems to point in one direction.

Repeating Iraq mistakes?

The British newspapers are suggesting there will be a strike this week.

I cannot help remembering a brilliant, defunct comedy series The Day Today, which showed a TV studio being transformed into a "war desk" with alarms screaming, red lights flashing, machinery rapidly swinging into place and lights dimming dramatically.

It captured exactly the way some in my business get over-excited by the possibility of conflict.

Chemical weapons claims

  • Khan al-Assal, 19 March 2013 - Syrian state media accuse rebels of killing 31 people with rockets containing "chemical materials". Rebels blame the army for the attack.
  • Al-Otaybeh, 19 March 2013 - Opposition activists allege an attack in which six people are reported dead, apparently in reprisal for gains made by rebel forces.
  • Adra, 24 March 2013 - The LCC activist network say two people are killed in an attack.
  • Sheikh Maqsoud, Aleppo, 13 April 2013 - At least three people are killed in an attack; internet footage of the victims shows symptoms consistent with exposure to nerve gas.
  • Saraqeb, 29 April 2013 - Eyewitnesses say canisters containing a poisonous gas are dropped from a helicopter above the town. Eight people are injured, one of whom later dies.
  • Ghouta, 21 August 2013 - By far the most serious alleged incident, with hundreds reported dead in attacks on the outskirts of Damascus

I have been stressing President Obama's caution and reluctance to take action. But now it does seems difficult for him to back down without losing face. Unless something changes.

One thing has long puzzled me.

While a government using chemical weapons against its own people is an affront that may demand international action, it seems obvious that a far greater horror from the US point of view is those weapons being used against its own people or allies.

The great fear since the 9/11 attacks has been such weapons falling into the hands of those the West regards as terrorists.

Given that one of the main opposition groups in Syria has formally declared allegiance to al-Qaeda, that must be a real possibility.

It would seem to me to be a core US interest to secure those weapons and put them beyond use. But I have seen very little discussion of such an option.

Remember, too, that American and Russian diplomats are heading for the Netherlands to plan peace talks. What might not enhance their chances of success is a US attack. But threats might.

While President Obama may not take much notice of Russian warnings, their central sentiment may strike a chord - the Russians say if the US goes to war it will be repeating the mistakes of former President George W Bush in Iraq.

That danger surely looms large in President Obama's mind.

The American military has consistently warned Syria is a hard nut to crack. It is not Libya, and its sophisticated air defences would take a lot of effort and commitment to overcome.

It would be surprising if President Obama took action without trying to obtain the maximum possible international backing, and that probably means giving the UN route more time.

I may be wrong: the red lights could soon be flashing and the war desk swinging into action. But while the rattling may be loud, the sabre has not yet been drawn.

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'Chemical attack': What we know
Map showing the areas where the alleged chemical attacks took place in Syria
  • 01:15: 21 August (10:15 GMT 20 Aug): Facebook pages of Syrian opposition report heavy fighting in rebel-held districts of Ghouta, the agricultural belt in eastern Damascus
  • 02:45: Opposition posts Facebook report of "chemical shelling" in Ein Tarma area of Ghouta
  • 02:47: Second opposition report says chemical weapons used in Zamalka area of Ghouta
  • Unverified video footage shows people being treated on pavements in the dark and in a makeshift hospital
  • Reports say chemical weapons were used in Ghouta towns of Irbin, Jobar, Zamalka and Ein Tarma as well as in Muadhamiya to the west, but this is not confirmed
  • Syrian government acknowledges military offensive in the Ghouta area but denies chemical weapons use
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Mark Mardell, North America editor Article written by Mark Mardell Mark Mardell North America editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 912.

    Shhh... Don't tell anyone, the war starts 01:00 on Friday. But you already knew that didn't you?

  • rate this

    Comment number 911.

    The conflict in Syria is one of many raging about the globe the nexus of which is Islamic sectarianism. If it is not the Shia murdering Sunnis and vice versa it is the fundamentalist who by the bullet intend to enforce Sharia law not only on Africa but on the whole world.Firing a few hundred tomahawks won't stop these thugs it will be the women who will not bow to the Islamic chauvinists.

  • rate this

    Comment number 910.

    909----Indeed, "Lest We Forget"
    Let us never forget Neville Chamberlain, the Death Camps, Pol Pot, Bosnian ethnic cleansing atrocities,et al.
    And we have a responsibility, as a more "evolved" country/political bloc/ "interfere" just as we did in WWII, in Afghan to rid it of terror training camps, as we did in Kosovo, etc etc.
    Civilised peoples have much responsibility.It's not easy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 909.

    905.Recall Tian Square

    Civilisation is allowing other nations to evolve naturally including abhorant violence/death in their quest for freedoms, rights & democracy against oppression & dictate & refereeing fair play of violence. Chemical weapons (WMD) are not fair play.
    The violent price of evolutionary freedoms are the mainstay of value of those freedoms, lest we forget

  • rate this

    Comment number 908.

    906-nice to see a fan club LOL.
    But,honestly, there are no bad manners involved in this case as far as I'm concerned. You get these sort of people on every Blog and you just have to shrug and get on with keeping up the proper standards, even though I'm a teen in a bed-sit :)
    Thx for your remarks;ure very kind but no probs.
    I just carry on and remember what Dad taught me about right and wrong:)

  • rate this

    Comment number 907.

    906...stylishly worded rather than rude. Are you related to 905 ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 906.

    @902. It's postings like that which demean these BBC Blogs---personal and arrogant and plain rude.
    I find Tan Square to be one of the best Bloggers on many sites and I am always lifted when I join a site where he/she is posting.
    You could learn some manners, chum.

  • rate this

    Comment number 905.

    #902-oh wise amateur psychologist and sage of Blogs :Syria is FAR from clear-cut in many respects. It is a (no pun) minefield.We cannot arm rebels in this case,we have to be careful of a very volatile Putin, we cannot use ground forces.
    But one thing is VERY CLEAR-CUT : are we going to allow gas again as in Dachau, are we going to watch the UN oversee genocide as in Bosnia.
    No--we are civilised.

  • rate this

    Comment number 904.

    I read a kind of science fiction book in 60s about the resources on earth and the middle east - it suggested that the next nuclear bomb in history will drop in the middl east.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 903.

    901.Recall Tian Square

    BBC HYS is full of those who prefer monsters, especially during daylight hours, until too late, monsters knock on their doors & they realise their fantasy PC idealistic world doesnt actually exist & batman & superman wont afterall help them

  • rate this

    Comment number 902.

    901. I've looked at your many posts . Like to think you might be a teenager in the proverbial bedsit but sadly suspect you are "respectable" member of small village "community". You seem to have a definitive perspective on how certain countries are superior to others. Has it occurred to you that Syria might not be so clear cut as you imagine. Don't mistake strength of opinion for being right.

  • rate this

    Comment number 901.

    So let's sum up:
    There are those who think we are civilised enough as a species to stop such things as fox-hunting, bear-baiting,genocide, little occurences in far-away countries like using gas like the Nazis did.
    There are those who would have us in the Stoneage, look the other way and let monsters rule the earth.

    I know where I stand.It looks as tho tough but RIGHT decisions are to be made!

  • rate this

    Comment number 900.

    28. HowQueerMissus wrote: The West should not get involved in Middle Eastern problems, because:a) It's none of our business


    It IS our business because all our countries are strongly interlinked.

    The days of distant Us and Them have long since vanished and everything that happens in this world has implications for everyone else whether you like it or not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 899.

    What ON EARTH are we doing.? The hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths in Iraq ? Why haven't politicians become exocised by this ? Disgusting arrogance to threaten Syria where, inevitably, more civilians will die, but it will be presented as a "surgical strike". Geo-political concerns, dressed up as altruism, predominate. Contemptible shackling of foreign policy to the US.

  • rate this

    Comment number 898.

    The BBC is so biased in its coverage of news reporting that I am considering boycotting it. They used to try to be impartial but these days they don't care anymore. Its so blatant how biased the reporting is. The media is run by the govt, they only report what the govt tells them to report, or maybe they think the majority of the population is too thick & they don't need to hide it anymore.

  • rate this

    Comment number 897.

    Is it wise for the UK, to get involved in Arab countries squabbles. loosing many men's life's, in the process for which doesn't really concern us.The fighting is between Sunni & Shias Arabs religion.The British army went into Ulster in 1969,to protect Catholic houses being burnt down by Protestants. After several years the Catholics saw the British as an occupying force

  • rate this

    Comment number 896.

    Unfortunately, it would seem that US attacks on whomever-they-please, whenever-they-please, are inevitable

  • rate this

    Comment number 895.

    I have no sympathy any more for people in this country that can't see or smell the stinky rats that are right in front of them, everyday spouting their slimy drivel. There's no excuse for people's ignorance any more. If the fake self serving politics in this country didn't have such a devastating effect on peoples lives, it would have surpassed the realms of comedy by now. Have your war, David.

  • rate this

    Comment number 894.

    It's always worth remembering that Obama has a Nobel Peace Prize.... Maybe one for George Bush too now..?

  • rate this

    Comment number 893.

    I don't think there are only two sides to the argument. It's not just a question of 'if', it's also a question of 'how'.

    I don't think most people would disagree that helping Syria is the humane thing to do, where you will find division is in what constitutes the best course of action to go about to deal with that situation.


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