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Strike Syria? -

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If President Obama was hoping for a quickie endorsement of his plan to attack Syria, he must be sorely disappointed. America is war weary, and appears exceedingly reluctant to be drawn into yet more conflict. Syria's President Bashar al-Assad has warned to expect everything in reprisal to an attack. Tension is high in Washington as Barack Obama launched a media blitz to argue his case. Today, though, a face-saving alternative may have emerged with a proposal that Syria relinquish its Arsenal of chemical weapons without US military invention. Aaron Lewis has been in Washington, where, as you can imagine, debate is raging over just what to do next.

REPORTER: Aaron Lewis

It's hard to believe that it's come to this - again. For years we have all been told that the American ar machine was winding down.

SERGEANT SPRINGER: I lost a lot of my friends in Afghanistan. It's real, it's really real. We have no problem with the Syrian people, they didn't bomb us, nobody attacked America, it's another way to get us into a war, that's what they are doing, beating the war drum, that’s all they’re doing - beating the war drum.

Sergeant Springer is only one of the veterans out amongst the crowd. I spot Ann Wright, who served 29 years in the military, and is a former high-ranking US diplomat. She says the public won’t tolerate being lied to again.

ANN WRIGHT: Well, 10 years ago I resigned from the US government over the lies the Bush administration was giving about the need to invade and occupy Iraq and here 10 years later the Obama administration in my opinion hasn't told the American public the truth about what’s going on. If they have the truth and the detailed classified stuff they better give it because the American public isn’t buying another war on lies.

The US administration has revealed little, so far. It claims that it has evidence that the Assad regime was responsible for the horrific chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. That attack crossed a so-called redline President Obama had marked out over a year ago.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: A red line for us is that we start saying a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilised, that would change my calculus.

It seems for Obama that the Ghouta attack was clearly a point of no return. Wary of going it alone, the administration sought a resolution from the UN Security Council. But the UN was paralysed, as long as Russia and China continued to use their Security Council veto to block any joint military action.

BAN KI-MOON, UN SECRETARY-GENERAL: The Security Council has a duty to move beyond the current stalemate and show leadership. This is a larger issue than the conflict in Syria. This is about our collective responsibility to humankind. Thank you.

Left without a UN mandate, Obama tried to rally a Coalition to the cause. But when America's closest ally, Britain, but the notion of a strike to a vote it was narrowly defeated to the obvious dismay of his counterpart, Prime Minister Cameron.

PRIME MINISTER CAMERON: It is clear to me that the British Parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action. I get that and the government will act accordingly.

That decision left Obama even further out on a limb. So on Saturday morning 10 days ago, Obama assembled his National Security Council in the Situation Room to tell them of a surprising decision. Isolated internationally, and under pressure from critics at home, Obama had decided to seek Congressional approval for a strike on Syria. To some it seemed laudable, to others it looked a lot like he was passing the buck.

DANIELLE PLETKA, AMERICAN ENTERPRISE INSTITUTE: He didn't need to go to the Congress, what he was trying to do was spread around the responsibility. What he risks is the ability of future presidents, not to speak of Barack Obama for the next three years, and his latitude in using military force when he wants to. That is an entire rewriting of the way that our government operates, in a way that I think limits the president very, very substantially.

JEREMY SHAPIRO, BROOKINGS INSTITUTE: Obama has done us a favour by provoking a national debate, and frankly he’s captured the national mood.

The national mood seems to be cautious. and that's a stark and perhaps telling contrast to America's reputation for having an almost constantly aggressive military posture. Nowhere is this national debate so electric as in the capital. Today, the Brookings Institute is holding their own forum on striking Syria.

MR DORAN: I think we absolutely have to do this, because I think our credibility is on the line, our credibility across the board, not just about chemical weapons.

But the national debate is not going Obama’s way.

JEREMY SHAPIRO: The red line that the President drew last year was a mistake, and I think it's important not to double down on that mistake. Don't do something stupid just because you did something stupid before.

Up until three months ago, Jeremy Shapiro was at the State Department working on US policy plans for Syria.

JEREMY SHAPIRO: It's difficult to imagine the attack failing on its own terms and since it's not supposed to accomplish anything.

He believes Obama’s limited strike will inevitably draw the US deeper and deeper into a situation that it’s just not prepared for.

JEREMY SHAPIRO: When I was in the government, I saw a lot of plans to topple the Assad regime, but not many plans to stabilize Syria. This is what I came to call, following Seinfeld, the yadda, yadda, yadda doctrine. We will topple Assad, yadda, yadda, yadda. There will be stability and democracy in Syria. And I think, as Elaine put it on Seinfeld so well, we yadda, yadda, yadda-ed the most important part, and that is how to bring stability. We've never figured out how to do that in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, and I think there's little confidence in the US government or beyond that we could do it in Syria.

Meanwhile, The President is insisting that it won’t come to that.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: The military plan that has been developed by the joint chiefs and that I believe is appropriate is proportional. It is limited. It does not involve boots on the ground. This is not Iraq and this is not Afghanistan.

FAYSAL ITANI, ATLANTIC COUNCIL: Without decisive US intervention on this side of the rebellion, I see this country decaying into a series of militias, private armies, some militias will be able to consolidate their hold on territory better than others. Unfortunately that tends to be the most ruthless and violent ones who will be able to do that. But there isn't a state left any more. We are in the Worst Case Scenario.

The fear of being dragged into yet another conflict in the Muslim world clearly weighs heavily on the President. But now that he's finally willing to take action, Washington's Hawks are still far from satisfied.

DANIELLE PLETKA: Like many people I'm very ambivalent about what the president appears to be considering because symbolic strikes on targets that may or may not alter the balance of power inside Syria really seem almost meaningless. What are they other than to shore up potentially the presidents credibility.

The uprising in Syria has now been raging for more than two years, and since the outset President Obama seemed determined to distance America from the conflict. His critics say that this reluctance to engage has only made the situation worse.

DANIELLE PLETKA: Well, I thought military intervention was a good step at a much earlier juncture things have spiralled out of control in Syria and the problem that we now face is that the opposition is as muddied as can be with Al Qaeda being involved and so even if we tip the balance we have got rather a complicated challenge on our hands politically.

FAYSAL ITANI: To go ahead and say I don't want to involve myself in backing this insurgency, because it has become a jihadist insurgency, when it did become jihadist insurgency because you didn't actually go in, have a clear policy and stay behind it. So, you’re blaming Syrians and condemning them to fighting the regime. Are all Syrians going to love you as the regime is overthrown, if those are the kind of solutions you are looking for in world politics, you probably shouldn't be president of the United States, you should probably worry about things a bit softer.

JEREMY SHAPIRO: We could topple the Assad regime and there would be a certain satisfaction in that because it's a horrible regime. But it would not be a humanitarian gesture at the end of the day, to topple that regime without a plan for what could come next, because we have seen in many instances that what comes next is the hard part.

It is this morass of competing concerns, along with their own partisan political interests, that the 535 members of the US Congress are now weighing up as they prepare to vote in the coming days. And the president has been deploying everyone he can muster to help win them over.

JOHN KERR, US SECRETARY OF STATE: You've got three people who have been to war here, you got John McCain has been to war. Not one of us who doesn't understand what going to war means, and we don't want to go to war. The president is asking for the authority to do a limited action.

Despite all the pleading, the numbers appear to be against the president. He knows it, and he's taken to the airwaves time and again to press his case.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Almost three weeks ago in Syria, more than 1000 innocent people, including hundreds of children, were murdered in the worst chemical weapons attack of the 21st-century.

Even if the administration manages to twist enough arms to win the vote, polls show that the American public will not follow quietly behind.

WOMAN: Politically it is suicide for Obama to go ahead and intervene in Syria because the American people don't want it.

WOMAN 2: From everybody that I have spoken with, friends, family, colleagues, no one is for this, we don't know what the outcome is going to be and what the consequences could be, we could have another 10 years of fighting and a bloodbath. We've already done that.

MEDEA BENJAMIN, CODEPINK: We're going to have a chance to see this week if we have democracy in action in this country. The whole world is watching.

For lifelong peace activist, Medea Benjamin, the anti-war shift in public sentiment has been simply staggering.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: I've never seen anything like this before, we don't have to go out and convince anybody of anything, we see them convinced. This is a very middle America kind of thing, this isn't the traditional left getting out with big protests with tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of people, this is people in their homes picking up the phone and calling their congressperson and saying, do not vote for this war or I will not vote for you.

A few, however, are right now looking past the red lines, even the possible strikes, and asking the deeper question... What is the best that can be done to help those Syrians who are facing these fresh wars?

JEREMY SHAPIRO: There's a lot more that we could do to improve the living conditions for those people and to help the countries that have very generously hosted them, and in fact all the neighbouring countries have been... have done very well on that score. But we could help them to integrate these people, to give them infrastructure and to give them education so they are not such a burden on the countries and that would help stabilise the neighbouring countries of Syria.
It's strange to me because this is a difficult task, but we know how to do it. It costs a lot of money, but it costs a lot less money than bombing the place.

FAYSAL ITANI: There is a strategy in Syria that I would advocate, this is an indigenous uprising by Syrian people, who represent a large chunk of the population, who have legitimate grievances, they have shown that they themselves are willing to protest and risk their lives and get shot and killed and tortured because they want to overthrow the regime. They are asking for help, they want money, they want weapons, they want to be trained, they want to be organised. If you have boots on the ground, it’s their country, they are committed, help them. There is an option here, it is not a military solution to the conflict, it is not boots on the ground, it is not any of those things Barack Obama is qualified at. It’s there, why aren’t you doing it. I don't really want to, is the only explanation.

As I left Washington at the 11th hour, a dramatic proposal emerged, one that America seems to be embracing, the surrender of Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons to international monitors with a view to their eventual destruction. For now an attack is on hold. There are many ifs, but this might just be the face-saving solution Barack Obama needs.

ANJALI RAO: Aaron Lewis filming, reporting and editing in Washington along with colleague, Aaron Thomas. Barack Obama said he will pause his plans for a military strike if Syria agrees to international monitoring of its chemical weapons stockpile, although he is sceptical that will happen. There are links on our website to the groups that Aaron spoke to, and the latest on this developing story.