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Column: Obama Has Nothing But Bad Options in Syria

Williston, Vt.

President Obama tells us he is in the process of deciding what measures, if any, the United States will take against Syria for the alleged use of chemical weapons. The decision is based on a number of as yet unproven assumptions that are now being investigated by the U.N.

Nevertheless, we are told that the Obama administration will not necessarily wait for the results of the U.N. technical inspection of the site in question or for the formal agreement of our allies on a future course of punitive action, but that it feels free to act unilaterally whenever it pleases.

We are told unequivocally that the Assad regime used gas in an Aug. 21 attack that took the lives of hundreds of civilians.

But what if it was the rebels? The attack will almost certainly result in American military action. Who in Syria will benefit from that? Certainly not the Assad regime, which, consensus says, already is winning the civil war. Only the rebels could benefit, and then only in direct proportion to the severity of our action.

In the meantime, just to further set the scene, the British have moved warplanes to Cyprus, although Parliament has voted against participation in military action. The U.S. has four destroyers standing off the Syrian coast. On the other side of the ledger, the Russians are moving warships to the Mediterranean basin. Hezbollah has stated its readiness to become involved in any future military action against us. Iran fully supports Hezbollah.

Our president proposes to “punish” the Syrians for the use of chemical weapons, not to weaken or destroy the Syrian military establishment. He and his spokespeople have said a number of times that the purpose of what we finally do, whatever that may turn out to be, will not be regime change.

It all sounds sort of like trying to spank a lion.

We have spanked lions in the past, never to our ultimate benefit. The downing of Pan Am flight 103 and the bombing of a Berlin nightclub serve as poignant examples of our inability to foresee or prevent retaliation against us for the kind of activity we are now contemplating for Syria. And given the realities of geography, all we represent in the Middle East is a target-rich environment. With our diplomatic, business and educational assets spread out all over the region, we provide more targets than any angry adversary could possibly need or want.

Obama, stuck with his ill-conceived Syrian red line, has nothing but bad options. Option No. 1 seems to be a slap on the wrist — something to persuade the Syrians never to use chemical weapons again. What conceivable good would that do us, or more importantly, the Syrian rebels? What they want is American action that will destroy the Syrian regime’s ability to beat them. A Syria-wide no-fly zone would be to their liking, or pervasive missile attacks on Syria’s military hardware. Further, there is no reason to think that anything as minimal as this would bother Assad in any way. Obviously, the deaths of his own people is of little concern to him. The only thing that matters to him and his followers is the perpetuation of their own power, which would not be threatened by such a slap.

Option No. 2 is to undertake military action that is so destructive that the rebels would be able to defeat the Assad government. What would that accomplish for us when we have little to no idea of what or who would follow Assad in power. Would al-Qaida be in the mix? Would today’s rebels turn on Assad’s fellow minority Alawites in retaliation for his regime’s ongoing bloodbath? Would that cause us to consider what we could do to save those same Alawites?

And, worst case scenario, will our action against Syria, whatever it proves to be, result in broader, more intense regional conflict?

Finally, it can be argued seriously that Syria and what goes on there is of no national strategic interest to us. Those who suggest that is our humanitarian duty to respond to the use of chemical weapons or to intervene as a way of protecting innocent civilians fail to explain why we have not done so in various African countries, where thousands have been killed. Given recent developments in the oil industry in the Western Hemisphere, there is no convincing argument that we must intervene in the Middle East to protect our national interests in that respect — but then again, there never has been, simply because oil is a fungible commodity that people who produce it will inevitably sell to those who consume it. Finally our decade-long involvement in military activity in the region has ended whatever vestiges of influence we have left after decades of bashing the Arabs.

An American dog may well get mauled in this fight!

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in East and West Europe and the Middle East and as chief of the counterterrorism staff.