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Syria’s agony, Washington’s quandary

The international community is poised to act, but will it do any good?

It's all but official: The United States and its allies have accepted that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its own people and they are prepared to respond.

The big question now is how? And, even more important, to what end?

As President Barack Obama’s administration weighs its options in Syria, it’s becoming ever clearer that there’s very little possibility of a satisfactory outcome.

The best that can be hoped for, according to experts, after action that’s likely to run into billions of dollars and is fraught with enormous risk, is an uneasy stalemate.

But pressure to act is mounting.

Secretary of State John Kerry has called the use of chemical weapons in Syria “undeniable” and promised that the Obama administration would hold the Syrian government accountable for a “moral obscenity” that should “shock the conscience of the world.”

France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said that inaction was unacceptable.

“The only option I do not envisage is to do nothing,” he told French radio.

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Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, cut short a vacation due to the Syrian crisis, and Turkey has also indicated that it is on board.

According to Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s foreign minister, more than 35 nations are considering joining the United States in taking action against Syria.

“We always prioritize acting together with the international community,” he told the Milliyet daily newspaper. “If such a decision doesn’t emerge from the UN Security Council, other alternatives ... would come onto the agenda.”

The Security Council is unlikely to give its imprimatur to any effort to punish Syria; Russian President Vladimir Putin has stood firmly behind Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

On Monday, one of Russia’s main newspapers, Izvestia, published a lengthy interview in which Assad denied that his regime was behind the alleged chemical weapons attacks, and warned that any attempt to intervene in Syria would lead to chaos.

“Global powers can wage wars, but can they win them?” he asked, arguing that America’s failed “in every war since Vietnam.”

For much of the past week, the airwaves and web pages have been dominated by scenes of suffering and death, apparently documenting chemical weapons strikes near Damascus that have killed many hundreds of civilians.

It’s not entirely clear who perpetrated the attacks, but a U.S. official told CNN that it's “all but certain” that it was the Syrian government.

The carnage that’s stiffened the international community’s resolve to intervene has done little to clarify the objectives of such intervention, however.

The barriers to further involvement in Syria, so convincingly outlined a month ago by Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have not changed.

In a letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee dated July 19, Dempsey detailed the main options for the use of military force in Syria. They included training the opposition fighters, establishing no-fly and buffer zones, conducting limited air strikes, and gaining control of chemical weapons. Each option came with huge costs and major risks.

The most likely response at this point, according to most observers, is a series of cruise missile strikes launched from U.S. ships in the eastern Mediterranean.

Dempsey said that could lead to “significant degradation of regime capabilities” but carries a “probability for collateral damage impacting civilians and foreigners inside the country.”

The main problem with intervention, Dempsey emphasized last week, was not the technical military task; it was what would happen afterward.

"Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides," Dempsey said. "It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today they are not."

The Syrian crisis is now in its third year, and some wonder why chemical attacks should be the precipitating factor. The world was silent while tens of thousands were killed and millions displaced — why act now?

“It strikes me as quite a bit of an arbitrary trigger to have 1,000 people killed with sarin, and all of a sudden, we are gearing up for a Tomahawk missile attack when you have stood by essentially for two years as 100,000 have been killed,” David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said Monday on National Public Radio’s “Diane Rehm Show.”

While it has not been established that the chemical agent used was, in fact sarin, experts are leaning toward that opinion. Stefan Mogl, a Swiss chemical weapons expert and former arms inspector, told The Guardian newspaper that the symptoms shown in videos "coincide with a nerve agent."

Mogl said it was very likely the agent used was sarin.

International officials are awaiting smuggled biological samples from the site in the coming days, The Guardian reported.

Amid the intensifying reactions, American credibility is at stake.

More than a year ago President Obama established a “red line” on Syria, saying if “we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized, that would change my calculus.”

Since then, according to Aaron David Miller, vice president at Washington, DC’s Woodrow Wilson Center, the red line has turned pink. Miller calls Obama “the avoider in chief” on Syria, adding that this is not necessarily a bad thing.

“What is it that military action by the U.S. is going to achieve?” he said in an interview on NPR Monday morning. “I suspect it will not be an effort to fundamentally change the battlefield balance. In effect, it'll try to be a strike that looks to alter Assad's behavior, not the regime itself.”

The conflict in Syria is, as Obama pointed out in his interview with CNN last week, “a sectarian, complex problem.”

It pits Shia against Sunni Muslims, with various nations in the region waging a proxy war on Syria’s battlefields.

Assad said as much in his Izvestia interview:

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“Our challenge … is the influx of large amounts of terrorists from other countries — estimated in the tens of thousands at the very least,” he said. “Qatar financed while Turkey provided logistical support by training terrorists and streaming them into Syria. Recently, Saudi Arabia has replaced Qatar in the funding role.”

He neglected to mention the thousands of Hezbollah fighters — based in Lebanon but backed by Iran — who have come to bolster his regime.

Assad’s Alawite regime is Shia, as is Iran; the rebels and their backers in the region are largely Sunni.

Assad complains, with some apparent justification, that the rebels have ties to al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. Al Nusra, one of the strongest of the rebel groups, is an alleged al-Qaeda affiliate.

This raises the prospect that Washington would, in effect, end up partnering with its chief global enemy should it become deeply involved in Syria.

“In Syria, America loses if either side wins,” Edward Luttwak, senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in a piece published in The New York Times on Sunday.

A victory by the Assad regime would boost Iran’s influence in the region, he warns, and pose a danger to Sunni Arab states and to Israel.

“Iranian money, weapons and operatives and Hezbollah troops have become key factors in the fighting,” Luttwak says.

But a rebel victor would be equally disastrous:

“Extremist groups, some identified with al-Qaeda, have become the most effective fighting force in Syria,” he said. “If those rebel groups manage to win, they would almost certainly try to form a government hostile to the United States.”

What can the international community do, given this state of affairs?

“Maintaining a stalemate should be America’s objective,” Luttwak writes. “The only possible method for achieving this is to arm the rebels when it seems that Mr. Assad’s forces are ascendant and to stop supplying the rebels if they actually seem to be winning.”

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But it could be a difficult task to persuade the war-weary American public of the wisdom of such a dangerous and expensive enterprise with so little prospect of clear success.

A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll suggests that 60 percent of respondents are opposed to military action — even more than before the chemical attacks.

According to Reuters, “the polls suggest that so far, the growing crisis in Syria, and the emotionally wrenching pictures from an alleged chemical attack in a Damascus suburb this week, may actually be hardening many Americans' resolve not to get involved in another conflict in the Middle East.”

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

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