Experts see imminent strike on Syria with uncertain results

Posted: August 29, 2013

THERE'S LITTLE doubt that President Obama's "red line" - the use of chemical weapons - has been crossed in Syria's bloody, two-year civil war, but what comes next is less certain.

Last week, the aid group Doctors Without Borders announced that more than 3,600 patients displaying neurotoxic symptoms had been seen at Damascus-area hospitals within hours, and that more than 350 had died. The Syrian government called the allegations "absolutely baseless."

The apparent attack by Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces brought forceful rhetoric from Secretary of State John Kerry and has Obama mulling a limited military strike.

Experts say the administration faces a difficult few weeks, during which doing nothing can be just as dangerous as getting involved.

"There's a very loud message sent by inaction," said Ian Lustick, a Middle East expert who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. "It would open a green light to Assad to use whatever he wants to use to secure the corridor up from Damascus to north of Lebanon."

W. Andrew Terrill, a Middle East specialist at the U.S. Army War College, in Carlisle, Cumberland County, likened last week's apparent attack to a possible "gateway drug that could lead to the development of more vicious weapons."

"Nations that seek to develop chemical weapons could step beyond that and develop nuclear and biological weapons," he said, noting former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's eventual graduation from using nerve agents to planning nuclear attacks.

Senior national-security leaders met at the White House yesterday as the administration moved closer to an attack on Syria. The most likely military action would be to launch Tomahawk cruise missiles from U.S. warships in the Mediterranean. The Navy last week moved a fourth destroyer into the eastern Mediterranean.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told BBC Television yesterday that U.S. forces are ready.

Military intervention could have unintended consequences, according to Ed Turzanski, a John Templeton Foundation research fellow and La Salle University professor. He pointed to the chaos that followed the U.N. intervention in Libya.

"The question is, what happens the day after the strike, and is the [Assad regime's] response going to be much more desperate and much more widespread?" he said. "We're very much in uncharted territory."

Anthony Cordesman, a national-security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, D.C., said he's skeptical that U.S. action would make a lasting difference.

"At the end of it, it's a little more like winning a schoolyard fight than accomplishing anything of strategic meaning."

- The Associated Press contributed to this report.

On Twitter: @jad_sleiman

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