The worst kept secret on the planet right now is that the United States, and perhaps other allies as well, will launch some sort of attack on Syria in the near future.
Last summer, Obama declared that one of his "red lines" was the use of weapons of mass destruction. Last week, someone in the Assad "administration" apparently used them to kill, among others, many hundreds of civilians.
US intelligence sources cite a strange intercepted phone call within the Syrian government camp as proof. A Syrian defense official demanded an explanation for why chemical weapons were launched. If one was forthcoming, the rationale has not yet been released.
This raises questions about the Syrian government. Was the attack the work of a rogue officer? Was it a direct order from the highest levels of government? Is the Syrian government even a cohesive unit anymore?
In any event, Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron seem to agree that a response must occur.
Cameron plans to consult with Parliament. At this time, however, Obama seems to have no plans to request authorization from Congress. Although some congressional Republicans have offered muted support, Senator Rand Paul (Ky.) claimed that Syrian events had "no clear national security connection" to the United States. Paul did not rule out action, but asked that Obama consult with Congress meaningfully before acting.
In this case, rushing to action within a few days does not seem absolutely necessary. The repulsiveness of the attack is not likely to wear out. Indeed the United Nations investigators will undoubtedly either uncover more evidence and details that maintain world disgust, or Syrian officials will block them entirely. The UN has requested four days, which does not seem unreasonable. President George W. Bush gave them much longer before launching war against Iraq.
Syria presents US policy makers considerable trouble. The rebel targets of government chemical weapons have shown themselves no less murderous than Assad's thugs. Islamicist rebels have slaughtered Roman Catholic clergy among many other innocents during their own reign of terror.
President Bush had some "good guys" to work with when he overturned Saddam Hussein's thugocracy. Syria seems to have few or no credible leaders who could make a peaceful republic work.
This limits Obama's options. Any Iraq style invasion would require a much more powerful force prepared to stay in place for much longer. Nation building would by necessity look more like colonization.
Any boots on the ground would likely end badly for the United States. In the mid 1980s, President Reagan deployed Marines to serve as part of a peacekeeping unit to try and bring stability to Lebanon. Terrorists killed over 200. After a few good-bye blasts from the USS New Jersey, American forces skedaddled.
The various Lebanese factions had no desire to play nice just because American and European soldiers showed up. They continued killing each other and blowing up heaps of rubble until they exhausted their will to fight. Lebanon has remained relatively peaceable ever since.
So ground based combat forces will not work.
That leaves air strikes and/or covert operations. The CIA does need to infiltrate Syria. To make reasonable decisions, American leaders need to have knowledge of what is going on and who makes it happen. It needs to monitor individuals and groups as they refine terror techniques. Covert teams can also find locations of important sites in case stronger military action is required.
Air strikes would have to be very precise and specific. Former Representative and anti-war crusader Dennis Kucinich noted that air strikes by American planes would make them Al Qaeda's air force. Indiscriminate targeting of Syrian government military forces would help clear the road for an even worse regime. Conversely, firing a couple of Tomahawk missiles in the general direction of Assad makes American power look downright petty and even silly.
Take the time to identify chemical weapons facilities. Only target them. Use weapons capable of doing the job, like daisy cutters. Cruise missiles may not deliver enough punch. This will achieve a limited goal and curb WMD attacks in the future without overly involving the US or using military action as a public relations stunt.
Obama must also prepare to stand by Israel. Attacks on Syria may provoke a response against Israel. Specific tactical actions may be necessary against any force deployed to strike Israel. On the other hand, it is difficult to see how effectively Syria could strike Israel while struggling in its own civil war.
Obama must make wise decisions here, stick by them, and articulate explanations. He must have the specific goal of curbing WMD usage while rebuilding respect for American power. If he covers his bases with Congress and the United Nations, this could help reconstruct respect for US foreign policy that has fallen greatly since Bush left office.
Many unmarked cliffs and chasms loom in the road ahead. Obama will have to tread carefully as he acts.