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Strike on Syria: Could it undermine efforts to end the civil war?

The Obama administration is indicating it hopes to keep diplomacy alive even in the aftermath of anticipated airstrikes against the military and other government targets in Syria.

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At the same time, however, the Obama administration is continuing its efforts to bring international legitimacy to whatever military action it takes in Syria by assembling a coalition of supportive countries – some of which would presumably participate in such an operation.

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President Obama spoke on Tuesday with British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President François Hollande, two leaders he’s communicated with repeatedly since the chemical attacks. He also spoke with the Canadian and Australian prime ministers.

The British have an air base in Cyprus and would be a likely candidate for participating in any operation. Mr. Cameron has recalled Parliament from summer holiday to debate the British response to Syria on Thursday. That, along with Obama administration pledges to release evidence of the Assad regime’s responsibility for the attack before the US takes any action, has led some to speculate that a military operation could commence this weekend.

Mr. Hollande said Tuesday that France is “ready to punish” the perpetrators of the chemical weapons attacks in concert with the US and others.

Secretary of State John Kerry conducted a long list of phone calls Monday and Tuesday, including NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Ban at the UN, and the Turkish, Jordanian, and Saudi foreign ministers.

One obvious missing party from the latest consultation list is Russia. And Russia is sounding like anything but an acquiescent power before the rising clamor for action against the Assad regime.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday compared the diplomatic efforts at building a coalition against Syria to the campaign undertaken by the US in the months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. He said that, as in the Iraq case, any military action against Syria would be illegitimate.

"The use of force without a sanction of the UN Security Council is a crude violation of international law," Mr. Lavrov said, accusing the countries calling for military action of wanting to be both judge and jury, "both the investigators and the UN Security Council."

Using a nonspecific “they” but clearly referring to a chorus led by Mr. Obama, Lavrov said, “They cannot produce evidence,” but nevertheless “they” insist that a red line has been crossed and that action must be taken.

That did not sound like someone who would be ready to quickly return to diplomacy after military action.

Such signs that the diplomatic track would probably be thrown off are among the reasons some experts – and members of Congress – are cautioning Obama against an imminent attack.

US Sen. Christopher Murphy (D) of Connecticut insisted that the kind of missile strikes being talked about would deliver only a “slap on the wrist” to Assad while probably prolonging and amplifying the violence in Syria. In a statement Tuesday, he said the Obama administration should remain focused on keeping up “concerted diplomatic, political, and economic pressure on the [Syrian] regime through the international community.”

Stating that military action “will likely draw us into a much wider and much longer-term conflict,” Senator Murphy said the administration should “continue to exercise restraint” in this conflict – especially since it poses no “imminent threat to America’s national security.”

That last position runs counter to Obama’s. The White House said Tuesday that, if left unpunished, the large-scale chemical weapons attacks in Syria last week would pose grave risks to US national-security interests.

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