“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 comment made by Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday afternoon and directed at Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – who the United States now believes used chemical weapons against his own people – opens the door for military action against the Assad regime.
But two questions remain: What kind of action will the United States take – and when will that action be taken?
The latter question is easy to answer. The United States has already moved naval vessels armed with cruise missiles and Marines into the eastern Mediterranean. A strike could occur at any moment.
The second question is much more difficult. A military operation is never foolproof, but the options President Obama has in front of him present unique challenges that will be difficult to overcome.
The president has several critical decisions to make:
- Does he authorize an air strike? There is a growing consensus that this is the course of action the president will take. According to reports, lawmakers have been told that a Cruise missile attack would last less than 48 hours and would target the Syrian Air Force.An attack like this sends a clear message to Assad and others countries like Iran that the use of weapons of mass destruction will not be tolerated.“This is about a lot more than Syria. It would underscore the message that chemical weapons and weapons of mass destruction cannot be used with impunity,” Richard Haass, chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, said Monday. “They cannot enter into the set of normal weaponry.”But it also has severe limitations. Obama can’t attack chemical weapons sites without risking the release of chemical weapons. This means that even after an attack, Assad could still gas his own people. Obama has to mount a cruise missile attack that is powerful enough to serve as a deterrent to future WMD use.
- Does he send in ground troops? Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said this past weekend that all options are on the table, including the use of ground forces. But this option presents a number of thorny problems for the president.U.S. troops would be fighting against the Syrian army. But they also could end up fighting rebel factions who are hostile to the United States. And they would give both sides a common enemy. The potential for a Black Hawk Down-type disaster is too great.The U.S. public also has very little appetite for the loss of American lives in yet another Middle East war zone. In a poll taken from August 19 to 23, 60 percent of Americans indicated they opposed intervention.A ground war in Syria would also be a difficult fight to win. Iraq showed that winning the kind of urban trench war Syrians are fighting is deadly. It’s also a fight that could get expensive quickly, fought at a time when the Pentagon is cutting back.
- Does the U.S. sit on the sidelines? Right now, one of the main reasons Obama is expected to act is to save face. Assad crossed the so-called “red line” months ago, and the president did nothing. According to the Council on Foreign Relations’ Haass, Obama now has the chance to correct this mistake.“This is a rare second chance and he has the opportunity to get it right,” Haass said. “This ought to be a moment to make good on what the president promised months ago.”Few would deny Assad needs to be stopped. Germany and France have already indicated they think action should be taken against Assad. If that’s the case, perhaps they should be the ones to take it. This would allow the United States to play a supporting role without having to invest time and treasure into whatever emerges once the bloody civil war is over.