At first blush, it sounded like a victory for the Obama administration – and it could still be. European Union ministers, meeting in Lithuania this weekend, called for a "clear and strong" response to Syria's reported use of chemical weapons against its citizens. But there was an asterisk. The EU ministers said no action should be taken until United Nations inspectors submit their report on whether chemical weapons were used.
What's more, France – which was the only Western nation apart from the US to support a strike against Syria – amended its position to mirror the EU's timeline. Strikes, yes. But only after the UN report. (And, presumably, only if the UN report comes back positive.)
The UN report is expected to be released this month, and perhaps within two weeks, so the timeline might not be too disruptive. If congressional approval comes, it should come around that time.
Yet the decision adds yet more variables to a situation already awash in them. What if the UN report comes back negative?
The White House appears utterly convinced that the attacks occurred and that the Assad regime is behind them. British tests on the victims have also confirmed the use of sarin gas, Prime Minister David Cameron said this week. But a negative UN test would raise the specter of the Iraq war all over again.
Would the US be so sure of its own analysis that it would launch a strike even if UN tests show no evidence of chemical weapons use? And would the US be willing to go it completely alone – as it surely would have to – if the UN report contradicts the White House's own findings?
Obama could find himself in the unprecedented situation of telling isolationist Republicans to ignore what the United Nations is saying.