Tavish Scott: Obama faces opposition on Syria

Tavish Scott. Picture: Neil Hanna
Tavish Scott. Picture: Neil Hanna
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Today, US president Barack Obama joins other leaders at the Group of 20 meeting in St Petersburg. Vladimir Putin is hosting the G20.

It will be dominated by one subject. Syria. Putin is against any unilateral military action against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. UN weapons inspectors are under huge pressure to provide evidence on who was responsible for the death of 1,400 children, women and men in Damascus. The balance of probability points to Assad’s regime. That is certainly the view of the US administration. But there is one certainty about the G20. There will be no agreement on Syria from the major powers.

Meanwhile, back in Washington DC, Obama’s administration is pulling out all the stops to shore up political support for military action. On Tuesday, senators grilled the secretaries responsible for foreign affairs and defence. Before Obama left for Russia he met leading Republican figures such as John McCain, whom he beat in the race for the White House back in 2008. McCain favours a military attack, as do many other American politicians across the political divide. But Obama has created an entirely new dynamic by asking the US Congress to back this proposed action before it begins. Quite what would happen if Congress defied their president and commander-in-chief is not clear. Would that amount to a Cameron moment, where Barack too would have to say, “I get it”? With a week to go before the US Congress votes that seems unlikely.

But Obama has three key constituencies to sort before he can be sure Congress will back his proposals. The first is his own party. Opposition to action in Syria lies amongst liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans. They oppose military action overseas, albeit from vastly different perspectives. Mainstream Republicans have been poking the president this week as to why his own party is not backing his plan. Does that sound familiar? Obama’s problem is that in a tight vote, Republicans who hate his guts may oppose military action if they have the cover of a split Democratic party.

Then there is the pro-Israel caucus. Israel feels directly threatened by Syria’s chemical weapons, so pro-Israeli congressmen and women will want to stand up to the Assad regime. Obama has to coax as many votes out of this lobby as he can. But this is not just about Syria. Israel’s greater worry is the nuclear capabilities of Iran. So, both Democrats and Republican’s may be swayed into supporting the president, given the longer term issue of the Iranian government’s intentions.

Finally, Obama must deal with the Republican hawks led by McCain. They think the president has been weak in not taking action already. But here the problem is the end game. Exactly what is the objective? Regime change in Damascus? Does this not remind you of earlier conflicts? Are we threatening once again to ignore the lessons of recent history? If the US Congress votes for military action where does this end?

• Tavish Scott is the Liberal Democrat MSP for Shetland