What, if anything, can U.S. intervention accomplish?
WASHINGTON — Questions are swirling about the endgame as the Obama administration prepares for a likely strike against Syria as punishment for an alleged chemical weapons attack in its civil war.
National security experts and some officials question whether a limited strike can have any lasting impact on Syrian President Bashar Assad, or whether it will simply harden Assad's resolve. And it's not clear how much the military operation could help the beleaguered and splintered Syrian opposition, or lessen concerns that hard-line rebels may not support America if they do seize control of the country.
A limited, short-term operation, however, may be a compromise between military leaders, who have warned against entering a civil war, and a White House determined to show that President Obama meant it when he said last year that the use of chemical weapons would cross a red line.
The broader objective is to damage the Syrian government's military and weapons enough to make it difficult to conduct more chemical weapons attacks, and to make Assad think twice about using chemical weapons again.
Senior national security leaders met again at the White House on Tuesday as the administration moved closer to an almost certain attack on Syria in the days ahead. The most likely military action would be to fire Tomahawk cruise missiles off warships in the Mediterranean Sea. The Navy last week moved a fourth destroyer into the eastern Mediterranean.
The looming military action has spurred debate over what the administration hopes to gain and whether a limited military campaign — either several hours or a couple of days — could do much to further the overall goal of ousting Assad from power or moving Syria toward a more democratic government. The administration says it isn't aiming that high in whatever action unfolds.
“The options we are considering are not about regime change,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
Anthony Cordesman, a national security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is skeptical that U.S. action will make a lasting difference.
“You can impact targets that have political value and military value,” he said. “But it doesn't shape the outcome or provide security for the people, and it certainly doesn't deter Assad from going on. At the end of it, it's a little more like winning a schoolyard fight than accomplishing anything of strategic meaning.”