As I write, the news has just broken that Britain will not be part of any military action against Syria in response to the recent nerve-gas attack on Syrian civilians in a rebellious area. No attack has yet begun, as far as I know.
So, what are the pros, cons, possible targets, and possible consequences?
The Obama “red line” comment of several weeks ago has put the Administration into a box. If we do nothing, we are a “paper tiger”, and it gives a signal that we are now afraid to get involved in another Mideast quagmire. So, a lot of the Very Serious People (an appellation swiped from Krugman) are saying there will be some sort of military strike, probably using cruise missiles.
I suspect the “red line” may have been an off-script moment, but it’s now policy. Republicans are disagreeing with each other, torn between machismo, isolation, and knee-jerk Obama loathing.
But if you are going to launch weapons, you’d better have an idea what might happen. Is the point of a military strike to function as a slap on the wrist? Would it make the point of “Don’t try that again or we’ll hit even harder?” I doubt anyone is considering an action strong enough to actually depose Assad, since there aren’t many moderates left in the rebellion. So the intensity of any action has to be carefully calibrated to say, “watch out, you don’t want there to be a next time”. Too soft, and it invites derision. Too hard, and there’s little room for any escalation.
What targets would be an appropriate wrist to slap? The HQ of the unit that fired the chemical shell(s)? A munitions depot, which would surely release more poisons? A governmental facility? A “presidential palace”? Civilian casualties are likely, and would undoubtedly be exploited for their propaganda value. (In fact, there are enough wounded civilians available that even a missile that landed and popped up a big rubber snake would generate “casualties”.)
What might be the effect of an attack on public opinion? There are at least three constituencies to consider: the pro-Assad side, the anti-Assad side, and the non-Syrian average Arab. The pro-Assad side will not appreciate being bombed, duh, and might turn terrorists loose against US or Israeli interests,. Not good if the Sarin genie is out of the bottle. The anti-Assad side will likely decry any strike as too weak, unless there are significant collateral casualties. And it’s easy to imagine the general view of “there’s another case of heavy-handed American imperialism again, messing around with another Mid-eastern country.”
It’s a tough quandary. Glad it’s not my job to make that decision.