What's to gain in Syria strike?
Experts wonder whether a quick campaign will further the overall goal: Oust Assad from power.
National security experts and some U.S. officials question whether a limited strike can have any lasting impact on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, or whether it will just harden Assad's resolve. And it's not clear how much the operation could help the beleaguered and splintered Syrian opposition, or lessen concerns that hard-line rebels may not support America if they seize control.
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.
The looming military action has spurred debate over what the administration hoped to gain and whether a limited military campaign - 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 options we are considering are not about regime change," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
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."
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, alluded to such concerns in a letter to Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He said military strikes could help the opposition and pressure Assad, but he added - pointing to the last decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan - "it is not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consideration of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state."
He warned that if the government collapsed without a viable opposition to take its place, "we could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control."
Christopher Griffin, executive director of the Washington-based Foreign Policy Initiative, questioned the wisdom of conducting a limited operation to punish Assad.
"Any military action taken just to send a message would send the wrong message," Griffin said. "It would undermine the president's stated policy that Assad must go and the administration's stated intent to work with a moderate, anti-Assad opposition."
The military strikes, Griffin said, must be "part of a broader strategy to force Assad to go, to create a moderate opposition that we can work with, and to prepare for Syria's future."
Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said providing "significant" arms to the rebels would be the best way to help shape the battlefield and influence the outcome in Syria.
"I think the strikes are in a narrow way successful by simply occurring," Haass said. "If the Syrians continue to slaughter . . . their fellow citizens as the civil war continues, then the United States has other means rather than direct military participation to counter that. And that's where I have been arguing . . . for serious arming of the opposition."
Based on precedents and military procedures, the United States is likely to launch a barrage of missiles. The immediate worry would be retaliation by Assad and the possibility attacks could send thousands more Syrians seeking refuge in Turkey and Jordan.
"If Bashar Assad didn't hesitate to use chemical weapons against his own sleeping civilians, what's to stop him from using them against sleeping Turks, Jordanians, or Israelis?" asked Michael Rubin, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
In the broadest policy terms, however, officials agree that the United State has little choice but to respond.
"If you draw a line in the sand and you allow your opponent to cross," Rubin said, "then that's not an issue of confidence only in Syria, but that's something the North Koreans will be watching, the Iranians will be watching, and potentially other rogues. . . . So the whole idea of a symbolic strike is to say, 'You can't cross the line.' "