As President Barack Obama and his administration inched closer Tuesday to military strikes against Syria for its apparent use of chemical weapons against rebel strongholds, analysts say Obama has a wide array of choices, ranging from launching cruise missiles from four U.S. destroyers in the Mediterranean or initiating a more extensive campaign using American and NATO jets based in Turkey.
But while analysts say the U.S. and its NATO allies have more than enough firepower to inflict substantial damage on Syria’s airfields and command headquarters, they warn that either a limited cruise-missile attack or broader air campaign in Syria could entangle the United States in another costly and unpopular Middle Eastern conflict.
“Sixty percent of the American people don’t want to get involved and for very good reasons because Syria is very messy and there are not good guys to support,’’ said retired U.S. Army Col. Peter Mansoor, a professor of military history at Ohio State University.
Mansoor said that “if it’s a one-time strike to show resolve, then it’s very do-able,’’ but warned that that it could be as “fairly ineffectual,’’ much like President Bill Clinton’s decision in 1998 to fire cruise missiles into Sudan and Afghanistan in response to al-Qaida’s bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said “the evidence now is very solid’’ that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons, adding that “once the United States says if you cross a red line, there will be consequences – you need to be sure there will be consequences.’’
For the White House to win his support, Portman said any attack would have to be multilateral and targeted to assure “that Assad pays the consequences and is held accountable for this act. I don’t think we should have a more broad intervention at this point. I don’t think there should be boots on the ground certainly.”
Published reports suggest Obama is leaning toward a short campaign relying on Tomahawk cruise missiles, which are extremely accurate. That might send the message to Assad that Obama was serious when he warned that Syria would cross a red line if the regime employed chemical weapons.
“You are hoping that (Assad) does get the message,’’ said Lawrence Korb, a defense analyst at the left-leaning Center for American Progress in Washington. “If he doesn’t, it was the president who drew the red line here. His credibility is on the line as well as the whole international norm against using chemical weapons.’’
If Obama opts for a more aggressive approach, he might turn to the model based on a three-month air campaign led by the United States and NATO in 1999 that forced the withdrawal of Serbian forces from war-torn Kosovo and essentially imposed an uneasy peace in the Balkans that has lasted to this day.
Yet the Kosovo campaign exposed the flaws in the arguments of those who favor surgical strikes aimed at military targets. U.S. and NATO planes, flying from Italy and Germany, killed at least 500 civilians in the old Yugoslavia and five U.S. bombs accidentally struck the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese nationals.
NATO could impose no fly-zones over areas of Syria controlled by the rebels. But while some rebels are relatively pro-Western, others are linked to al-Qaida, which means the U.S. could inadvertently topple Assad in favor of a terrorist regime.
“There’s two bad sides and not a lot of good sides here, so we need to follow America’s national interest,’’ said Columbus-area Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Upper Arlington.
U.S. missiles could be aimed at Syria’s stock of chemical weapons, but the explosions could spew deadly gas in the air, “hurting the very people we’re trying to protect,’’ said Stivers, a colonel in the Ohio National Guard.
Although Obama has consulted with House Speaker John Boehner, R-West Chester Twp., there is little sign the White House plans congressional approval to attack Syria. Clinton ordered the cruise missile attacks in 1998 and the Kosovo air campaign in 1999 without congressional approval.
Some lawmakers, such as Columbus-area Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Genoa Twp., contended that Obama “put us in a box on this in a couple of different ways. One, if you’re going to draw a red line and make a big deal about the red line you’d think you’d know what the consequences of crossing that line would be before you made that statement.”
“I certainly think the American people are owed an explanation, particularly when the commander in chief draws the red line that he drew,’’ Tiberi said. “The American public needs to understand why this is important, why crossing a red line is important.’’
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said the Syrian regime “has killed,detained, and tortured civilians, creating a humanitarian and refugee crisis. The U.S. must work with our allies to ensure security in the region and an end to violence.’’
In addition, once the shooting starts, few can predict how it would end. As Mansoor said, “Once you use military force, you open that Pandora’s Box and it becomes difficult to close.’’
Jessica Wehrman of the Washington bureau and Joe Hallett and Darrel Rowland of The Columbus Dispatch contributed to this story.