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Critics Say U.S. Strikes Would Delay Syrian Transitional Talks


The objective of an American strike on Syria appears to be evolving. Days ago, White House officials insisted their goal was to respond to the use of chemical weapons, not to intervene in Syria's civil war. But it's always been quietly understood that doing one thing could easily affect the other, and that has become more explicit in recent days.

The Senate resolution approved in committee yesterday says it is the policy of the United States to shift the momentum on the battlefield. Many analysts question whether U.S. military force will help or hurt the chances for negotiation. Here's NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: In two days on his old stomping grounds on Capitol Hill, Secretary of State John Kerry had to fight off criticism from all sides - from lawmakers who are worried that the U.S. is getting involved in a civil war, and from those who think that the administration is not doing enough to topple Bashar al-Assad.


SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: There are moments where you have to make a decision, and I think this is one of those moments.

KELEMEN: Kerry told the House Committee on Foreign Affairs that there are risks of acting but, he argues, the greater risks are not acting. What the U.S. wants to do - with the approval of Congress, he says - is to carry out a limited strike to degrade Assad's capacity to use chemical weapons. Kerry says the U.S. also wants to help the opposition, and get to negotiations on a future Syria.

KERRY: And we have no chance of getting there if we back off and give him a message of impunity. We will have said to him: Nobody cares. Gas your people. You do what you need to, to stay in office, and we're backing off. That would be - I honestly find that - I mean, that would be one of those moments in history that will live in infamy.

KELEMEN: But if the goal is deterrence, Barry Pavel, of the Atlantic Council, says the Obama administration is violating the basic tenets of that theory by not acting swiftly, and not keeping the element of surprise.

BARRY PAVEL: I've sort of dubbed this, at this point, Operation Slow-Motion Pinprick.

KELEMEN: Pavel, a former Pentagon and White House official, says this is a military operation with a political goal. And the U.S., he says, should want Assad hunkered down for, as he put it, a sustained, terrifying period of time.

PAVEL: The reason you want that is the takeaway you want him to have is, "I will never think about doing this again. I lost some of my advisers in some of these strikes. My office was shaking. My wife's wardrobe has dust on it now." I mean, you want him coming away not even thinking about the possibility of resorting to weapons of mass destruction again.

KELEMEN: But other analysts say war is too unpredictable, and they're raising doubts that the U.S. can pick military targets to achieve such political objectives. The International Crisis Group put out a statement saying that calibrating a strike to change Assad's calculations - without prompting retaliation or impeding diplomacy - is, quote, "appealing, in theory." But in practice, it almost certainly is not feasible. Mona Yacoubian, of the Stimson Center, shares some of those concerns.

MONA YACOUBIAN: This is a risky undertaking. I think that is why there has been this pause. I think that the U.S. is moving to shore up not only support here at home, but also internationally.

KELEMEN: There are a lot of factors at play, she says, including Iran and Russia - both supporters of the Assad regime. Yacoubian says both suggested they are worried about chemical weapons use, if it's proven Assad was responsible.

YACOUBIAN: That potential concern could be turned into a withdrawal of support for the Assad regime; a pressuring to move toward diplomacy. And I think that's something that's a factor that absolutely bears watching.

KELEMEN: But a lot could also go wrong, and U.S. military planners are trying to reassure members of Congress that they are prepared for retaliation. Administration officials are facing a lot of skepticism from lawmakers worried that the U.S. is virtually alone in this action, and that there are no guarantees of success. Florida Republican Ted Yoho said this should be resolved through diplomacy, not with bombs and guns.

REP. TED YOHO: Why is it always America out front? I know we've got the best military, and I'm very proud of that. But why are we out leading this - again?

KELEMEN: Obama administration officials say it's because U.S. credibility, and international norms against chemical weapons, are on the line.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.