The challenge facing President Barack Obama and his political and military advisers is this: How to "punish" the regime of President Bashar al-Assad for its alleged use of chemical weapons on civilians, but not punish it too severely, lest that destroy a government whose survival is deemed preferable, for U.S. regional interests, to one led by the most radical rebel elements.
While the administration appeared to be gearing up this week for some form of military response to an incident denounced by Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday as a "moral obscenity," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters Tuesday that the purpose of any intervention was not to oust Assad. "It is not our policy to respond to this transgression with regime change," he said. "That is not what we are contemplating here."
The policy, according to Mark Perry, a foreign policy analyst and author of several books on military history, can be translated as follows: "The U.S. would like to see Bashar al-Assad lose, but they don't want to see the opposition win -- but how do you do that?"
"It's not sound military doctrine," Perry said. "We don't usually deploy to 'punish' but to 'defeat.' What's the goal here?"
Beyond that overall strategic question, Obama must decide how many targets and how often should they be struck -- what's too much or too little. And then there's the question of whether any punishment action by the U.S. and coalition partners deters Assad from using chemical weapons, or instead emboldens him. That's a multi-faceted dilemma for a president still trying to extricate troops from more than 10 years of war in Afghanistan.
The Pentagon has left no doubt that it's leery of getting involved in Syria. In July, Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, delivered an assessment of military options to Sen. Carl Levin, head of the Armed Services Committee, in which he discussed possibilities that included "limited stand-off strikes."
Gen. Wesley Clark, commander of NATO forces during the Kosovo war, says that campaign began slowly, but escalated and eventually lasted 78 days before Serbian forces withdrew from the territory. "There must be diplomatic weight behind the first military strike in Syria, he warns.
"You have to make sure ... that your adversary knows that it's inevitable the escalation will follow and there'll be no relenting on the pressure," he told al Jazeera. And if the logic of the strike, as some have suggested, is simply to deter future chemical weapon use, the Kosovo logic may not apply, since that campaign had a different objective: to force a Serb withdrawal from the rebel province.
But the diplomats around Obama -- Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, and U.N. ambassador Samantha Power -- are countering the military's caution, says Perry, who calls the trio "cruise missile liberals."
"In some respects, they're worse than the conservatives," he says. "They think they can use power to affect good, they see [the military] as a tool."
Joshua Foust, former intelligence analyst for the Pentagon, calls limited intervention "comically futile." Obama, he says, faces a politician's dilemma: "Doing something is better than doing nothing, even if doing nothing might be more constructive."
Limited intervention will barely affect Assad, Foust argues, while a massive intervention would fracture the regime and allow "some of the scariest militants on the battlefield" to receive most of the weapons and push to the fore.
There is the wider regional consequence to consider as well. Israel, concerned it would be the target of Syrian retaliation to a U.S. military strike, says it would respond "with force" of its own.
Gulf states who have been supporting rebel forces, want to see the regime dealt a blow sufficient to topple it.
But hobbling the regime runs the risk of empowering rebels who, Foust says, are dominated by radical groups. "The people being armed are scary, the worst people are getting money," he argues. "The people controlling territory are all Islamists, they're the only ones left at this point."
Russia has signaled strong opposition to military action against Syria, which makes it unlikely that any intervention will receive U.N. Security Council authorization.
And there is Iran.
Alongside reports that Iran has sent thousands of its Republican Guard to beef up Syrian military ranks, there are now accounts that members of the Corps are manning Syrian chemical facilities. Should they also become collateral damage in the wake of a U.S. military strike, it will open another front in the conflict, and Obama's Syrian conundrum becomes even more byzantine.
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