Obama's big question mark on Syria

US President Barack Obama speaks before he gives the Medal of Honor to Army Staff Sergeant Ty M. Carter during a ceremony in the East Room at the White House in Washington 26 August 2013 If the US strikes, what then?

President Barack Obama says he has made no decision on military action. But he's pretty clear what it might be and what it won't be.

Speaking to PBS Newshour, he said any action would be "tailored", "limited" and intended to send a signal to the Syrian government to discourage them from using chemical weapons again.

But he also said he had decided against "direct military engagement", adding: "I have no interest in any kind of open-ended conflict in Syria" and spoke of "not getting drawn into a long conflict, not a repetition of Iraq".

There is no doubt that is not just Mr Obama's view - it is a heartfelt plea by a military involved in 10 years of war.

But it raises a lot of questions. What action sends a message to Bashar al-Assad, but does not loosen his grip on power?

A couple of cruise missiles? Three days of air attacks? The destruction of air bases?

The most obvious response, on the chemical weapons bases themselves, has apparently been ruled out by most experts because it would simply disperse the deadly agents far and wide.

It is obvious that when President George W Bush declared war on Afghanistan he didn't expect troops to still be there more than a decade later. Yet it happened. The slope to war is very slippery.

Of course in one sense it is relatively easy for Mr Obama not to get dragged in. He could order one attack and refuse to do any more. But that could leave him looking weak, his action a hollow symbol. There could be retaliation.

Mr Assad could be more determined than before. By declaring that he will avoid a long conflict Mr Obama could be unintentionally signalling to him that this is a one-off punishment, not a response that could escalate to match the regime's actions.

One source, deeply involved, told me an important part of the discussions was exactly that: "Something needs to be done, but what is the impact? What is a surgical strike for? If Assad does it again what do you do? What is the ultimate action?

"Big question mark."

It is indeed.

Mark Mardell Article written by Mark Mardell Mark Mardell North America editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    How can one take action against one side or the other if your not 100% sure who set the bloody thing off.It has been said that the rebels have no heavy artillery,well that has not stopped Hezbollah or Taliban lobbing or hiding IED`,at Israel or the coalition.Evidence if you please not hearsay.

  • rate this

    Comment number 158.

    Now that the UK's Parliament has rejected any action against Syria, perhaps Obama will insist upon obtaining approval by Congress. If they reject a strike as well, then Obama is essentially off the hook on his threat. Ain't democracy wonderful . . .

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    The big question mark is Who did it?


    They have not released any evidence to the public
    and so we are left hanging
    trying to figure out if it was really Assad or the al Qaeda rebels
    or outside foreigners or rogue Syrian military members

    That being said if we get involved there will likely be retaliation

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    tuffer: doubt very much that the opposition forces would kill so many of their own side

    You can't put anything past al Qaeda

    The al Qaeda rebels thought they were going to get a bunch of weapons from USA, UK, etc but when it didn't happen it made them angry

    When Obama said chemical weapons was red line
    al Qaeda knew instantly that was the only way they could draw USA, UK, etc into war

  • rate this

    Comment number 126.

    I watched the debate in the House this morning (thank you BBC), and left with some hope that the British government, at least, is giving real, careful thought to the implications of another disastrous US/UK blunder in the Middle East.

    Why is this so _urgent_? Assad will still be there in two weeks time. That's one more reason I believe that we aren't being given the whole story (again).


Comments 5 of 290



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