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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

WASHINGTON (AFP) – Signs are growing that the horror of chemical warfare could for the first time draw the United States into a direct military intervention in Syria’s vicious civil war.

The U.S. military and diplomatic machine is slowly stirring, after pictures of children apparently choked on poisonous gas shocked the world last week.

President Barack Obama is facing another test of a legacy doctrine rooted in avoiding Middle Eastern quagmires.

Syria touches a perennial question of whether humanitarian impulses or narrow national interest should define U.S. foreign policy. The crisis is intensifying as Obama is wrestling with how to respond to a coup in Egypt.

The president held a rare Saturday meeting with top aides including Vice President Joe Biden, his secretaries of defense and state, intelligence chiefs and senior brass to discuss the U.S. response.

Then he called British Prime Minister David Cameron — hinting at an effort to frame an international coalition for action.

It is unclear whether Obama is leaning towards a military strike if the use of chemical arms by Assad’s troops, which would infringe a “red line” he established last year, is proven

It is possible that U.S. diplomatic and military activity in recent days could be simply designed to build pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has resisted all U.S. demands to quit power.

But the administration appears to be taking steps that would be expected to precede a decision to target Syrian units eventually implicated in the attack outside Damascus.

The Pentagon is positioning forces, including ships equipped with cruise missiles, closer to Syria while Obama aides examine the Kosovo conflict for legal precedents for action without a UN mandate, which Russia would surely block.

Secretary of State John Kerry has also been burning up phone lines, talking to U.S. allies in Europe and the Middle East.

Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University foreign policy historian, believes Obama is yet to sign off on military force.

But he said the administration clearly “feels pressure to do something, or to look like it is preparing to respond, for political reasons, [and to show Syria] that there are boundaries to what is permissible.”

Obama aides caution that no decisions have been finalized, and want definitive proof that Syrian forces strafed a rebel-held Damascus suburb with chemical arms and killed 1,300 people.

But the White House offered credence to the reports in a statement on Saturday’s meeting, noting “contemporaneous witness accounts and [a] record of the symptoms of those killed.”

Simply by being seen to marshall the U.S. response, Obama is raising the stakes.

“There is a sense in Washington that this is new territory and they will take some sort of action,” said Barry Pavel, a former senior defense and national security official in the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations.

But if robust action does not materialize after Washington pumped its muscles, the administration risks tarnishing its credibility, said Pavel, now with the Atlantic Council.

Obama’s personal reputation is also in play, after he said last year the widespread use in Syria of chemical weapons would cross a U.S. red line.

U.S. foes in Iran, China and North Korea are watching to see whether defying the U.S. president entails a price.

Obama responded to previous small scale chemical weapons use in Syria by promising direct aid to rebel groups.

But he called the chemical attack a “big event,” raising the stakes for himself. A U.S. intelligence finding that the Assad regime was indeed to blame would put Obama in a tough political spot.

Officials have only spoken in broad terms about possible military options.

Any strike would have to be strong enough to deter reprisals by Assad’s military, but sufficiently limited to avoid pulling Washington further into the war.

Hussein Ibish, a Middle East analyst with the American Task Force on Palestine, believes military action is possible.

“It seems to me the minimum action we would expect is a limited cruise missile attack on some chemical weapons-related sites. It could include disruption of facilities that are useful to the regime,” he said.

Whatever happens, Obama wants to be remembered as a president who ended U.S. wars, not one who opened new fronts.

Officials say there is no talk of a no-fly zone in Syria, And there are also signs the administration is concerned about framing a legal rationale for any action.

One blueprint could be the coalition, including European and Gulf states, that went to war in Libya to protect civilians.

That scenario would lack the United Nations Security Council resolution on Libya — which Russia did not block, only later to conclude it had been duped into regime change.

Obama must also consider what would happen if military action went wrong, including the danger of civilian casualties. Domestic politics also cannot be ignored.

Obama would likely argue that limited action against Syria would fall short of the scale of operation requiring a formal authorization of war for Congress.

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Copyright 2013 The National Memo
  • Dominick Vila

    President Obama is in a tight spot on this one. As the de facto leader of the free world he has no choice but to intervene, if the UN inspectors conclude that chemical weapon were, indeed, used against civilians. It does not matter if there is no conclusive evidence linking Assad to the military or police officer (s) that planned and carried out the attack. Assad is the president of Syria, he has refused to step down, and he is therefore responsible for the consequences of his decision and whatever happens while he is in power.
    As bad as the international outlook is, the domestic political fallout is likely to be much worse. If he does intervene, even if our intervention is limited to a few drones or cruise missiles, or the imposition of a no-fly zone, the GOP will accuse him of starting a new war and wasting billions of dollars that could have been invested at home. If he does nothing he will be accused of being an appeaser, dereliction of duties in the face of a heinous crime, and Muslim sympathies. He is in a no-win situation, and I suspect he is well aware of that.
    His best option includes the imposition of a no-fly zone, destroying chemical weapons storage facilities and, perhaps, targeting military units fighting civilians. If he does the latter, he might as well target some known Al Qaeda units operating in Syria, and challenge the GOP to oppose a decision that would be, clearly, defensible. If the GOP objects to military action the administration should ask them if they prefer to turn the USA into the Sweden or Switzerland of the 21st century, or if the want to help keep the USA relevant on the world stage and protect our interests abroad. The biggest obstacle may turn out to be his reluctance to resort to violence and endangering the safety of our troops.

    • tdm3624

      Agreed. It is a no win situation. I do hate though how we seem to keep getting sucked into these Middle Eastern conflicts with very little return on our investment.

      • Dominick Vila

        Indeed. Unfortunately, that is the price we must pay for being the leaders of the free world. I suspect negotiations are already under way with key European allies to reach international consensus and cooperation. After that, there will be not too subtle warnings to Russia, who has been profiting from the status quo.
        What remains to be seen is the scope of Western intervention. President Obama has shown time and again that he is reluctant to put boots on the ground, and prefers to solve troublesome problems by targeting specific troublemakers and facilities rather than

        • CPAinNewYork

          “…the price we must pay for being the leaders of the free world”? That’s total bullshit. We don’t have to be the leaders of the free world if it means that we get to foot the money and blood bill every damn time.
          Do you feel strongly about this, Dominick? You do? Fine. Then go to Syria and join the rebels. You may find that they don’t want your help, because you’re an infidel and they hate your guts.
          Remember what happened to our high blown missions to Bosnia and Somalia. We stopped the Christians from slaughtering the Muslims in Bosnia and tried to feed the starving Somalis. Have you received their personally written letters of thanks yet?

          Dominick, you’ve written some thought provoking pieces. Congratulations. But, sometimes you spout pure drivel, like now.

          • Mikey7a

            Did you miss the part where Dominick mentioned European Allies getting on board? This should be joint action. From what I’ve read, many are ready to back our play.

          • CPAinNewYork

            I don’t want us to have ANY play. I don’t care about any Muslim. They all hate us and as far as I’m concerned, they can all go to hell.

    • CPAinNewYork

      Obama is in a tight spot only if he makes the same mistake that you’re making: assuming that it’s the mission of America to ensure a moral world. If you really feel that strongly about Syria’s gassing of its citizens, then you should go to Syria and join the rebels. Put your money where your mouth is.
      As for me, I think that we’ve already spent too much of our national treasure and killed too many of our troops for the sake of a bunch of Muslim scumbags who hate our guts.
      Obama can say with a clear conscience that this is not our fight and we’re not coming to join the party.

      • Mikey7a

        Our mission is NOT to ensure a moral world CPA. I’m nowhere near as smart as many on here, but I always saw America as the protector of the helpless. These Syrians are using Chemical Weapons on innocent women, and children, not just on rebel soldiers. How can we, with a clear conscious, just sit by and watch? I for one, will back my President, whichever way he decides to go.

        • CPAinNewYork

          You’ll back him? Well, why don’t you put yourself at risk and go to Syria and join the rebels? Backing Obama by supporting his starting another Mideast war is just a lot of hot air.