Even as United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon calls for fresh talks on Syria, and Russia says it is not blocking the U.N. but wants member states to be “more objective”, Syria’s part in President Barack Obama’s domestic agenda could yet be crucial. In practice, the United States Congress leaves foreign affairs to the President, but the War Powers Resolution of 1973 (the War Powers Act) requires him to consult the legislature before introducing U.S. troops into hostilities or clearly likely hostilities, and limits involvement to 60 days unless Congress has declared war or specifically authorises continuation. Congress has not so far objected when the executive has used troops without consultation so as to evacuate U.S. citizens from combat zones, or in the event of an attack on the country. Nevertheless, the Act, passed after the disastrous U.S. war in Viet Nam and possibly because the U.S. never declared war on the erstwhile Democratic Republic of Viet Nam (North Viet Nam), has never been invoked thus; in 2003, President George W. Bush gained Congressional sanction for the illegal invasion of Iraq, and the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan was approved by the U.N. Security Council.

Mr. Obama, however, is not using the Act solely for constitutional reasons; Syria is an instrument in the bitter struggle, which started the day the President took office, between himself and the Republican faction in Congress. To start with, Mr. Obama is showing a willingness to cooperate with Congress. Secondly, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s 10-7 vote for at least a 60-day intervention shows divisions in both parties, but the Republican split is the more serious. GOP members in favour of an attack on Syria, such as Senator John McCain, see U.S. global standing as being at stake. Those against, like Senator Rand Paul, are mindful of domestic public hostility to any more foreign military adventurism; recent polls show nearly 80 per cent approval for the use of the War Powers Act, but they also show opposition to intervention at 50:42, though 50 per cent would support limited action, such as missile strikes. The Republicans stand to lose far more than the Democrats, as they have blocked or wrecked everything Mr. Obama has tried to do, but now they face cooperating with him or making the U.S. look weak. The intervention issue is, therefore, less about the plight of Syrians than about U.S. domestic politics; that may also explain Washington’s indifference to post-attack developments. The sting in the tail is that intervention would put Washington on the same side as the extreme Sunni rebel group al-Nusra, and thereby the same side as al-Qaeda. Osama bin Laden would have loved it.

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