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Operation Desert Farce

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If U.S. President Barack Obama ever does get around to targeting Syria, with congressional approval, it will be the strangest U.S. military strike in recent memory.

The administration has made a convincing case that the Syrian regime gassed 1,400 of its own people to death last month, including 426 children. And yes, the use of poison gas violates longstanding international norms.

Yet Obama can't seem to make up his mind if he wants to punish Syria for using chemical weapons or not.

On Saturday, he made a strong case for using military action to deter anyone from deploying these terrible weapons again. He said he'd decided to strike Syria, then -- in the very same speech -- said he was postponing the mission until he gets authorization from Congress, which won't return until Sept. 9.

Obama and his spokesmen have already spent a week insisting, over and over, any strike would be a "limited narrow act." Missiles would be fired from ships in the Mediterranean for a short time, aimed only at sites linked to the delivery (not the storage depots) of chemical weapons.

Furthermore, the aim would not be to unseat President Bashar Assad, or to impact the wider Syrian conflict. Meantime, his aides have so clearly telegraphed the possible targets that, according to opposition sources, the regime has been trucking troops, files and equipment away from those sites.

The administration's litany of limitations already had Syrian opposition leaders comparing a possible strike to "Operation Desert Fox," the Clinton administration's much derided four-day bombing campaign in 1998 that aimed to degrade Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.

After Saturday's speech, this latter-day Desert Fox is looking more like Operation Desert Farce.

Obama's public dithering is confusing both his allies and his foes. "He seems unable to make difficult decisions," says Hisham Melhem, the veteran Washington bureau chief of the al-Arabiya news channel. "This will embolden Assad and the opposition jihadis and demoralize the secular, moderate Syrian opposition. Obama is gambling with his reputation at home and abroad."

Why Obama is seeking congressional cover this late in the day is perplexing. He didn't ask Congress for permission when he backed the NATO operation in Libya in 2011, but he may be feeling lonely after British lawmakers rebuffed their government's plan to co-operate in the strike.

Now with U.S. ships at the ready in the Mediterranean, there will be days more of debate over should we, shouldn't we. If Congress votes no -- which is entirely possible -- Obama will be humiliated at home and abroad.

What's so depressing about this whole mess is that the real rationale for any strike on Syria was to rescue Obama's credibility -- especially with Tehran. The use of chemical weapons does violate a hard-won international taboo, and the president has said repeatedly over the past year Syrian use of chemical weapons would cross a "red line." Last month's hideous gas attack came after several previous small ones had gone unpunished; this time the president had to react with more than rhetoric.

Secretary of State John Kerry made this clear, last week, when he said the U.S. response to the chemical strike "matters deeply to the credibility... of the United States of America... It is directly related to... whether countries still believe the United States when it says something. They are watching to see if Syria can get away with it. It is about whether Iran... will now feel emboldened, in the absence of action, to obtain nuclear weapons."

I sympathize. The president does have a real credibility problem in the Middle East, the result of an incoherent (or absent) Mideast strategy, especially on Syria. But the administration's tactical plan for a one-off punitive strike -- divorced from any larger strategy -- never made sense.

Now Obama has to sell that limited concept to Congress. He will argue Syria's chemical weapons threaten us, which they do not.

The real danger to U.S. security interests lies elsewhere -- in a Syria collapsing into chaos and providing new havens for jihadis who could threaten the region and beyond. Over the past two years the White house chose not to arm moderate, non-jihadi Syrian rebel commanders who the CIA had vetted. New al-Qaida affiliates and other radical Islamists have pushed these commanders aside. Flush with supplies from rich Gulf Arabs, they are now setting up a new Afghanistan in eastern Syria and western Iraq.

The administration says any strike will not address this bigger problem; it will not be aimed at breaking the current Syrian military stalemate between regime and rebels, or at scaring Assad into entering serious peace talks. Not is there any sign it will be accompanied by a new policy of seriously arming moderate rebels.

This kind of tactical strike, divorced from any larger strategy will leave Assad in power, crowing that he survived America's aggression. Yet a failure to punish Assad -- after threatening to do so for weeks -- will be a terrific blow for Obama, and undercut America's standing and influence abroad.

This is the Hobson's choice to which the president's indecision has led him. Operation Desert Farce is already heading our way.


Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 4, 2013 A11

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