As the arguments play out about the justification, legitimacy and legality of an international military attack on Syria, another question is emerging: Is there a broader public appetite for intervention?

The US and its Western allies are convinced the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are responsible for a poisonous gas attack which killed hundreds of civilians last week.

Things are changing very quickly .… Opinion in Britain is not at all keen on the idea of another military conflict in the Middle East. On the other hand there is no doubt that the use of poison gas strikes a chord, it's regarded with horror .… The question is: Is there anything we can do which is effective, legal, safe? Or not?"

Oliver Miles, a former British ambassador to Libya, and deputy chairman of the Libyan British Business Council

But a poll taken in the week of the chemical attack found that 60 percent of Americans were against US intervention, with just nine percent supporting it.

And a survey in the UK this week found that 50 percent of respondents opposed missile strikes, with 25 percent in favour of it. The balance of people in both those polls was undecided.

President Barack Obama previously said that Syria's use of chemical weapons would constitute what he called a red line. But in the same speech, he quickly diluted his comments, saying his "calculus" and his "equation" would change.

Some of that hesitation was also evident in remarks he made on Wednesday.

"If in fact, we can take limited, tailored approaches, not getting drawn into a long conflict, not a repetition of Iraq - which I know people are worried about - but if we are saying in a clear and decisive but limited way, we send a shot across the bow to say stop doing this, that can have positive impact on national security in [the] long-term, and may have a positive impact in a sense that chemical weapons are not used against innocent civilians," he said.

That was in contrast to statements made by Obama's Secretary of State John Kerry, who earlier said:

"What we saw in Syria last week should shock the conscience of the world. It defies any code of morality. Let me be clear: The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity. By any standard, it is inexcusable and - despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured - it is undeniable."

The discussion that is now playing out says that any military intervention, if it does go ahead, will focus on specific targets, serving as more of a warning, and that it would be over in days.

Nevertheless, it is still raising concerns about wider regional fallout. Iran is warning of a "disaster" in the event of military action, describing the Middle East as a "gunpowder store".

Meanwhile, Israel has announced a call-up of security force reservists, and stepped up its missile defences. And sources within the Syrian army and the armed Lebanese group, Hezbollah, have warned of retaliatory strikes against Israel if Western military intervention against Syria was to escalate.

So, are Western leaders stalling in the face of growing public opposition? Are these governments really prepared for the consequences of a military attack? And what does this mean for the future of the region?

To discuss this, Inside Story, with presenter Jane Dutton, is joined by guests: Richard Murphy, a former US ambassador to Syria and Saudi Arabia, and former chairman of the Middle East Institute in Washington; Fadi Salem, a researcher on governance, and a commentator on Arab current affairs; and Oliver Miles, a former British ambassador to Libya, and deputy chairman of the Libyan British Business Council.

"The [US] president said last night he has not made the decision to do anything militarily, but all the indications are … that it is a matter of only a few days before some action is taken .... I don't believe they are going down the road of seeking a Congressional vote of approval, but they recognise they have to keep the Congress involved. And then [Obama] has the American public. He needs to go to the public with a clear explanation of the evidence that it has in hand of the culpability of the Assad regime in this attack. It is not enough to simply assert: 'We know, and if you knew what we know, you wouldn’t be questioning us'. And he is not doing that. He promised there will be a public explanation, and I think it would come in the next day or so."  

Richard Murphy, a former US ambassador to Syria and Saudi Arabia, and former chairman of the Middle East Institute in Washington

Source: Al Jazeera