Stephanie Gaskell, writing at Defense One, emphasizes just how far into the corner President Obama has backed himself on Syria:
If President Obama doesn’t launch a limited military strike against Syria for using chemical weapons against its people, President Bashar al-Assad will be able to claim victory over the United States. If he does order a strike against Assad, the U.S. has made clear that it won’t remove Assad from power — another reason for the Syrian dictator to boast that he stood up to the powerful United States.
Either way, it seems, Assad wins.
The latter possibility is precisely the reason many of us worry that the United States will get sucked into a deeper war in Syria. The president and John Kerry keep repeating that the cost of inaction in Syria is too high. But perhaps the cost of halfway action is even higher. Consider this scenario: the United States goes in, hurls a few missiles, leaves, Assad declares victory, ramps up his efforts against the rebels, and ultimately wins the civil war. An Assad victory after the United States militarily invests itself in the rebel cause would be an unthinkable blow to American credibility. And yet, given that Martin Dempsey said yesterday that the goal is not to eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons (let alone Assad himself) and one U.S. official said the intervention would be “just muscular enough not to get mocked,” a regime win is a very real possibility.
Kerry got a lot of attention yesterday when he started speculating that America could put boots on the ground if Syria “imploded” or al-Nusra jihadists acquired chemical weapons. He later backpedaled and Politico declared his comments a fumble. More likely, they were an acknowledgment of reality and a hint at some of the contingency planning going on behind the scenes. War is not the timeout corner; you don’t wage it to teach a lesson, even if that lesson involves some of the most hideous weapons in the world today. Wars are fought to defeat the enemy, something President Obama seems publicly determined not to do. Once he lets the missiles fly, he may find that he little choice, and we may end up diving down another dark Middle East rabbit hole.
The language of the authorization approved by Congress will be crucial. Today the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a resolution allowing for 90 days of military action and prohibiting boots on the ground, though it includes a McCainiac amendment calling for a “change of momentum” in the Syrian civil war. We’ll see where all this goes.
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