The Obama administration is right to be cautious about US intervention in Syria. For the US to launch a military strike without UN Security Council sanction would constitute an illegal 'act of war' against a sovereign state. (The Kosovo precedent cannot make an illegal act legal.)
A scrum has erupted in the press these last few days: heads down, padded shoulders locked, like some football “rush” intent on pushing and jostling a president cradling the ball of military intervention physically across the “red line” on Syria. The speed and thrust of this dash for the line, however, seems to convey the momentum of unchallengeable “truth.” Awkwardly, reality is rather different: There has been absolutely no evidence published to support the allegation that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces were responsible for this latest, or any other gas attack in Syria.
Unwelcome as it may be to certain European and regional governments, who have been cheerleading the case for American intervention, neither the Russians nor the Chinese, both of whom are well represented on the ground in Syria, have believed either the earlier US finding of the use of chemical weapons by Syrian security forces or indeed this latest allegation.
On the contrary, Russia previously has given evidence to the UN Security Council to show it has seen opposition forces that have used sarin gas against civilians (echoing the conclusion of Carla del Ponte, the former international prosecutor and current UN commissioner on Syria). And Russian officials state that the latest use of gas was delivered by a homemade missile, fired from a position known to be under opposition control.
Although the European constituency (Britain and France) are chafing with impatience to begin retaliation even before evidence has been amassed, the US administration has been more cautious. This is wise. Wars are always treacherous in their facts, and for the US to launch a military strike without Security Council sanction (which it will not get) would constitute an illegal “act of war” against a sovereign state – and a crime. (The Kosovo precedent cannot change an illegal act into a legal one).