Pros and cons of a limited strike against Syria

Protesters hold banners against a potential air strike in Syria in front of the US Embassy in Sofia on September 4, 2013.

UNITED STATES - Citing intelligence reports, the United States says the Syrian government used sarin gas on its own citizens during an Aug 21 attack on opposition forces outside Damascus. It also says that 1,429 people died, including 426 children.

Following a request from US President Barack Obama, members of Congress will soon decide whether to authorise the use of military force to punish the Syrian regime led by President Bashar al-Assad.

Having earlier declared the use of chemical weapons by Syria against combatants to be a "red line" that would trigger US intervention, President Obama is now obliged to act or spend the remainder of his presidency in ignominy.

But as commentators around the globe have been pointing out in recent days, there is much more to it than that.

Given that domestic politics in the US rules out the possibility of a "boots on the ground" approach, what can - or should - Washington do to prevent such attacks occurring in future?

Indeed, is there anything at all that it can do?

In an article published in the Washington Post on Saturday, Mr Robert McCartney quotes Maryland Congressman Chris Van Hollen as arguing for action.

Mr Van Hollen is supporting the effort to get Congress to authorise Mr Obama to carry out air and missile strikes to deter Syria from using poison gas again.

"I have always found it cruelly ironic that the United States and the world did nothing when Saddam Hussein actually used chemical weapons against his people, and then wrongly went to war more than 15 years later when Saddam Hussein did not even have any chemical weapons," he says.

In 1988, at aged 29, Mr Van Hollen spent four days trekking through Kurdish refugee camps collecting hundreds of eyewitness accounts on the effect of chemical weapon attacks.

"That was a very emotionally powerful experience," he told Mr McCartney, "because you came face to face with people whose families had been victims of chemical weapon attacks, who had been killed by poison gas. There were mass casualties."

As Mr McCartney notes, the US took no action "even though Mr Van Hollen and a colleague wrote a detailed Senate staff report describing Baghdad's brutality and urging economic sanctions".

Mr Van Hollen now says he wants to make sure Mr Assad doesn't escape punishment in the way Saddam Hussein did when he used chemical weapons against the Kurds.

Limited strike, limited use

Other commentators, however, argue that a limited strike would make little difference.

In another Washington Post article, Mr Robert Danin, a senior fellow on the US Council on Foreign Relations, refers to a 2003 incident which saw him and other US officials meeting Mr Assad in his Damascus palace.

The aim of the meeting was to convince the Syrian President to cease his support for terrorist groups in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine and halt the development of weapons of mass destruction. Mr Danin says he thought his message was clear and unambiguous.

But the Syrian leader saw things very differently. "Assad took comfort from the fact that US officials went to the trouble of travelling to him to talk. From this, he deduced that his overriding concern - physical survival - was no longer a worry: The United States wasn't going to topple him as it just had Saddam Hussein in neighbouring Iraq."

The situation today, asserts Mr Danin, is very similar. "Assad will take succour in Obama's stated commitment to steps that 'would be very limited and would not involve a long-term commitment or a major operation'.

"And why not? This amounts to saying that, other than using chemical weapons, Assad's ruthless killing to date does not merit a US response."

Averting its gaze

And to the extent that US strikes really do prompt the Assad regime to stop using chemical weapons, Mr Danin argues, it may not help the Syrian people very much.

"The use of US military force might prompt Assad to halt further chemical weapon attacks, but he would probably ratchet up his use of conventional weapons."

This is because "the international community has been willing to avert its gaze from the deaths of more than 100,000 Syrians since 2011".

"Such a scenario would nonetheless allow the US to declare its limited objectives fulfilled." Mr Danin argues that Washington must make Mr Assad believe that "any US response is part of a larger strategy to compel him to stop slaughtering his own people".

Dr Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, however, makes a very different point. "Even a weak strike," he argues, "is more in line with US interests than a refusal to strike or, worse, congressional action blocking any attack."

After such a high-profile public debate on the issue, failure to act would encourage Syrian rebels to conclude that the US had abandoned their cause. In effect, he argues, such inaction would strengthen Mr Assad, Iran, the Hizbollah and Al-Qaeda.

Tellingly, few commentators seem interested in some form of diplomacy or UN involvement. As Mr Nicholas Kristof points out in the New York Times: "Russia blocks progress in the United Nations.

America has tried multilateral approaches, and Syrian leaders won't negotiate a peace deal as long as they feel they're winning on the ground."

Yet other commentators prefer to focus on the impact of the congressional debate on Mr Obama's presidency.

Bloomberg's Mr Albert R. Hunt points out that no issue is fought in isolation in Washington. Inevitably, the debate will have an impact on the battle over the deficit and debt ceiling, as well as the Obama administration's other policy agendas. "If President Obama wins on Syria, most Republicans who supported him will want to take their distance on other issues," he argues.

In return for helping out the President on Syria, Republicans may demand concessions on the debt issue and a roll-back on defence cuts. Such bargaining, argues Mr Hunt, could even have an impact on the confirmation of the next chairman of the Federal Reserve.

Many Republicans dislike Obama nominee Larry Summers because they blame the former treasury secretary for the current economic stimulus and the rescue of the automobile industry.

Mr Obama may also have a problem with his own supporters.

As columnist Maureen Dowd pointed out recently in the New York Times: "Barack Obama first made his mark as an Illinois legislator with a speech in 2002 about Iraq, which he warned would be 'a rash war, a war based not on reason but on passion', a war that would 'distract' from our own problems with the economy and poverty."

Such words, says Ms Dowd, may now come back to haunt him.

"Agitated constituents at town halls across the country are asking why the President wants to distract from our own problems with the economy and poverty."

Ever since the use of mustard gas and chlorine gas by both sides in Europe during World War I, there has been a concerted international effort to ban the use of chemical weapons. Such weapons are seen as particularly inhumane because they make no distinction between soldiers and non-combatants.

The Geneva Protocol (first signed in 1925) by the League of Nations prohibiting gas and bacteriological warfare was largely respected during World War II. But a series of violations in subsequent decades has been worrying.

By taking a stand now against such weapons, Mr Obama may well believe that he has the moral high ground. But such moral grandstanding can mean little in politics if your enemies are determined to take advantage of what they see as a weakness.

Few dispute that losing the congressional vote on Syria will make Mr Obama's presidency appear impotent.

On the other hand, the extent to which a victory will enhance his standing as President or assist rebels fighting against a bloody dictator remains hotly debated.

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