CAIRO -- The Arab League on Tuesday declared the Syrian regime "fully responsible" for an alleged chemical weapons attack, giving the Obama administration symbolic regional cover to proceed with a punitive offensive that could begin within days.
Two U.S. defense officials, speaking on condition of anonymity so as to discuss sensitive military plans, told McClatchy Newspapers that military commanders were ready to execute a sea-based strike but were awaiting orders from the White House. The officials said the attack would be carried out exclusively by the four destroyers currently based in the eastern Mediterranean and would not include airstrikes to supplement the expected missile barrage.
U.S. officials emphasized that any military action would be punishment for the Syrian government's apparent use of chemical weapons, and not an operation to remove President Bashar Assad. That distinction is important to the Obama administration as it searches for a response that
deters Assad from chemical warfare but doesn't drag the United States into a devastating conflict that's already spilling across borders and inflaming the Middle East.
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Vice President Joe Biden told the American Legion National Convention in Houston that there was "no doubt" the Assad regime was responsible for the "heinous use of chemical weapons."
"Chemical weapons have been used. Everyone acknowledges their use. No one doubts that innocent men, women and children have been the victims of chemical weapons attacks in Syria," Biden said Tuesday.
Biden, who met with Secretary of State John Kerry for breakfast and also spoke with British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, didn't allude to any specific intervention, but he warned that "those who use chemical weapons against defenseless men, women and children should and must be held accountable."
Limiting military action to punitive strikes is also important to nervous Arab states that already are feeling trickle-down effects of the Syrian civil war: huge refugee populations, sectarian flare-ups and the regrouping of al-Qaida-style extremists. Should Assad be ousted abruptly, all those problems are only expected to metastasize, as no credible opposition authority is prepared to take charge, according to U.S. military and foreign policy analysts' assessments.
Pushed by influential Persian Gulf states, the 22-member Arab League issued a strongly worded five-point statement after a two-hour session in Cairo. It called Syria "fully responsible for the ugly crime and demands that all the perpetrators of this heinous crime be presented for international trials."
There was no discussion at the Arab League about the potential U.S. strike, though the tone of the statement suggested that the possibility of one drove its tough rhetoric. The league also said the U.N. Security Council should put aside internal differences and pass the "necessary resolutions against the perpetrators of this crime," a reference to a suspected chemical attack a week ago that killed hundreds of Syrians in an eastern suburb of Damascus.
Without directly blaming the Assad regime, Arab League Secretary General Nabil el Araby said that what happened was a "flagrant violation of international humanitarian law." That language echoed the words of Kerry, who twice spoke with Araby by phone Monday, before the league convened.
While the Arab League is generally derided as an ineffectual organization, its tacit endorsement of a U.S.-led strike against Syria is important as the Obama administration cobbles together a coalition of Middle Eastern and European allies to avoid the delays and vetoes of trying to authorize action through the Security Council.
"I think it's very significant because it shows there are countries in the region that are concerned and want NATO to act," said Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "I think of what happened with Libya a few years ago. There was a resolution from the Arab League to intervene. It makes it easier for the administration and provides cover because there is support."
While U.S. officials hint of impending action, the timing is proving tricky. Wednesday is unlikely because it would force President Barack Obama into the awkward position of attacking Syria on a day commemorating the nonviolent March on Washington by civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Thursday, too, would be problematic because that's when the British Parliament convenes to discuss a Syria response, and the U.S. is counting on British backing.
British Prime Minister David Cameron called Parliament back as news agencies reported that commercial pilots near Cyprus had spotted British C-130s and radar images of small formations of fighter jets heading to Britain's Akrotiri airbase on Cyprus, which is only about 150 miles from Syria.
Still, in the United Kingdom not everyone was sure that the time for intervention had arrived. The Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander told the BBC that as far as committing British troops, neither he nor other members of Parliament were "prepared to write the government a blank check."
An Istanbul-based Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the delicate politics of an intervention, also said it's unclear when a strike might occur, speculating that it could take up to a month before the United States and its allies reach an agreement on specific action.
The diplomat noted that the Saudis and the Turks, two regional heavyweights, were scheduled to meet in Riyadh this week, followed by a Gulf Cooperation Council meeting on Sept. 2 and a meeting of Arab League foreign ministers on Sept. 3. Then there's the U.N. General Assembly and the St. Petersburg G8 summit at the end of September, when the Americans might try one final push to get the Russians and other holdouts on board.
"The Americans are interested in creating an international legitimacy" for the intervention, the diplomat said. "They don't want to be alone. They don't want to be accused of being a unilateral power."
At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney declined to say whether Obama would seek permission from the United Nations for any potential action on Syria. He gave no hints as to timing or scope, but he made it clear the administration would act against Assad.
"There must be a response," Carney said. "We cannot allow this kind of violation of an international norm, with all the attendant grave consequences that it represents, to go unanswered. What form that response will take is what the president is assessing now with his team."