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US strike on Syria? How far Obama might go.

If President Obama’s past approach to intervention is any guide, the possible Syria action is likely to be a middle ground between doing nothing and action so forceful it would topple the Assad regime.

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“Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides,” wrote Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a letter to Rep. Eliot Engel (D) of New York.

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Washington Editor

Peter Grier is The Christian Science Monitor's Washington editor. In this capacity, he helps direct coverage for the paper on most news events in the nation's capital.

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It’s possible that the US will enable its allies to strike Syria. This could take the form of providing logistics and intelligence for other nations, such as France, Britain, or Turkey, to take the lead in airstrikes.

That would be consistent with the administration’s generally realist approach to international interventionism, according to Daniel Drezner, professor of international relations at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

However, while that worked in Libya, it’s not clear that it could succeed in Syria, Professor Drezner adds in a post on his Foreign Policy magazine blog. The Syrian air defense system is far more capable than was Libya’s. Assad’s military appears committed to fighting to the bitter end.

“Is it possible for US forces to play a strictly supporting role that enables French or other forces to take kinetic action in Syria? Or does that option not really exist?” Drezner muses.

The 1999 NATO-led air war over Kosovo may be a precedent and model for US action in Syria. That campaign was multilateral, relied on air power, and achieved its political objective of forcing Serbia to stop fighting and pull back its military; then Kosovo became an autonomous Albanian enclave, writes Slate military expert Fred Kaplan.

However, that result required boots on the ground – tens of thousands of NATO peacekeepers dispatched to the area after fighting stopped. That’s unlikely to be matched in Syria anytime soon.

If Obama does approve military action, what will its objectives be? That’s the crucial question of any military intervention, according to Mr. Kaplan.

“It should be asked, and answered, before a decision is made to intervene – along with a calculation of how much effort might be needed to accomplish those objectives and whether the cost is worth the benefit,” he writes.

Kaplan adds that destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons capability might be difficult, given how easy it is to hide such weapons. More feasible might be destruction of Assad’s air force. That’s something the US could do, wrote Dempsey in his letter to Representative Engel.

“The loss of Assad’s Air Force would negate his ability to attack opposition forces from the air, but it would also escalate and potentially further commit the United States to the conflict,” according to Dempsey.

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