Reports of a potential chemical weapons massacre perpetrated by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are changing U.S. attitudes toward the Syrian conflict, with the administration weighing more seriously the option of military strikes.
The U.S. began refining its military options for possible strikes in Syria, officials said, and initiated diplomatic efforts to craft an international response to allegations that Syria's government killed over 1,100 civilians with chemical weapons.
Officers at the Pentagon on Thursday were updating target lists for possible airstrikes on a range of Syrian government and military installations, officials said, as part of contingency planning should President Barack Obama decide to act after what experts said may be the worst chemical-weapons massacre in more than two decades.
U.S. officials who described the military options being revised at the Pentagon stressed that their purpose wouldn't be to topple the regime, but to punish Mr. Assad if there is conclusive evidence that the government was behind poison-gas attacks on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Russia -- Assad's ally and U.N. Security Council protector -- is finally pressing him to allow U.N. inspectors access for an investigation of the attack.
BEIRUT — Russia’s Foreign Ministry called Friday on the Syrian government and on opposition leaders to allow U.N. inspectors to investigate a suspected chemical attack...
The public statement by Russia, Syria’s most stalwart ally, could add considerable weight to international calls to determine exactly what happened in the Damascus suburbs this week to cause the death of scores — perhaps hundreds — of civilians.
And President Obama is "troubled" by a conflict that threatens our "core national interests."
Asked about claims by anti-regime activists in Syria that Bashar al-Assad's government used chemical weapons in an attack that was said to have killed more than 1,300 people, Obama responded that officials are "right now gathering information" and that "what we've seen indicates that this is clearly a big event of grave concern."
He quickly followed up with a warning, however, that "core national interests" of the U.S. are now involved in Syria's civil war, "both in terms of us making sure that weapons of mass destruction are not proliferating, as well as needing to protect our allies, our bases in the region."
While the United States should be wary of assisting Syrian rebels dominated by Islamist extremist groups like al Qaeda, it's true that Assad's use of chemical weapons on this scale -- if massacre did indeed occur -- could represent an important turning point for America's role in the conflict. Calling chemical weapons use a "red line" may appear to be a foolish move by the President in hindsight, but our Commander in Chief did indeed say it.
One of the most critical foreign policy tools at any nation's disposal is that of coercive diplomacy. Often times the threat of military action, even if the action never takes place, is enough to achieve key diplomatic victories -- this is especially true for a military superpower like the United States. For coercion to work, however, a nation's credibility must be undoubted. This means that, when we threaten to use force under certain circumstances, we are bound to follow through should those conditions arise. American coercive credibility has historically been rock solid, so the President's "red line" statement was crucial. This is why, with Assad now flaunting U.S. credibility, President Obama is taking the military option more seriously.
Of course, it would be foolhardy to risk American lives over a careless presidential statement. So I'm encouraged by reports that the administration's favored course of action is a long-distance cruise missile strike that wouldn't put any manned aircraft in Syrian airspace. If maintaining America's diplomatic power requires a remote missile strike, then maybe it wouldn't be such a bad idea after all.