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Proposed Strikes Against Syria May Have Too Narrow A Purpose


This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

A possible strike on Syria could move closer to reality today.

GREENE: British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that the U.K. will put a resolution before the U.N. Security Council, quote, "authorizing necessary measures to protect civilians caught up in the civil war there."

MONTAGNE: That resolution is almost certain to fail, since Russia is vehemently opposed to any military strike on its ally, Syria. Still, it's a formal step towards action in a war that's left more than 100,000 civilians dead. More than a million refugees have fled the country. But the Obama administration says the goal of any military strike would be a limited one, to show the Assad regime that the use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated, as NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The suffering in Syria has been horrific. But only now that we've seen Syrian children affected by chemical weapons, choking and writhing in apparent agony, only now has Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States is prepared to take action there.


JOHN KERRY: President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world's most heinous weapons against the world's most vulnerable people.

GJELTEN: The idea here: When the President of the United States draws a red line - no chemical weapons - it has to mean something. His word, America's word, must have meaning. The reason for hitting Syria would not be that too many people have died there, or that the refugee crisis has become unbearable. The rationale would be more narrow. So, too, the military response, presumably, and the American people probably don't want a deeper U.S. involvement.

Here is Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, speaking this week on a conference call.

RICHARD HAASS: One of the powerful arguments for the administration responding militarily is to reinforce the credibility of American diplomacy and red lines. I don't, however, believe that this ought to be used to heavily influence the outcome within Syria.

GJELTEN: White House spokesman Jay Carney yesterday was careful to say that whatever action the U.S. and its allies take in response to the chemical weapons attack in Syria, it'll have nothing to do with any U.S. desire to support the opposition forces there.


JAY CARNEY: We are not evaluating this option as a measure to - as part of an effort to affect the...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It's completely separate from that.

CARNEY: It's a separate matter, in our view.

GJELTEN: So if there's a cruise missile strike or other military action in Syria, the goal wouldn't be to change the military balance between the government and rebel forces. It would simply be to send a message. The audience would be the Assad regime, or any government that may think about using chemical weapons, or biological weapons, for that matter, or nuclear weapons.

Military commanders generally are not enthusiastic about waging war just to send a message. But Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says the alternative of doing nothing in this case could be worse.

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: No one in the military wants to see an escalation that would license the use of chemical or biological or nuclear weapons.

GJELTEN: The big question facing the administration, however, is whether it's even possible to send a message through military action without tipping the military balance. Military historian Eliot Cohen is skeptical. Now at Johns Hopkins University, he served as a counselor at the State Department during the Bush administration.

ELIOT COHEN: If you really want to establish your credibility, having drawn red lines and all that, and given the magnitude of what's happened, I think the only thing you can do is something that really does have a noticeable effect on the balance in the civil war.

GJELTEN: The challenge in delivering a message now to the Assad regime, Cohen says, is that it needs to counter the message Assad sent his own people by using chemical weapons, that being: No one will protect you.

COHEN: The U.N. won't protect you. The United States most certainly won't protect you. We can do whatever we want to you. And I think if the president is going to follow through on his own words, he's got to deliver the kind of punch which makes it clear that, no, that message is wrong.

GJELTEN: War is dangerous business. It's also unpredictable. Anthony Cordesman notes that even limited cruise missile strikes against Syria could lead to something wider.

CORDESMAN: The problem is, if Syria retaliates, if it strikes at our allies or tries to strike at U.S. destroyers in the Mediterranean, then we will probably have to escalate.

GJELTEN: And this at a time when the U.S. military is overstretched and under severe budget constraints, and when America is suffering from serious war fatigue.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.