Obama has been arguing that it is essential to impose consequences on Bashar Assad's regime for using banned weapons of mass destruction, and we agree. As the president put it Tuesday, "there are certain weapons that, when used, can not only end up resulting in grotesque deaths, but also can end up being transmitted to non-state actors; can pose a risk to allies and friends of ours like Israel, like Jordan, like Turkey; and unless we hold them to account, also sends a message that international norms around issues like nuclear proliferation don't mean much."
Obama says that the attack he is contemplating would "degrade Assad's capabilities" and that the United States will also "upgrade the capabilities of the opposition." But he also has been stressing the "limited" nature of the attack, describing it as a "message" or "a shot across the bow" rather than a blow intended to affect the military situation. Senior officials have been suggesting that the administration does not want to tip the military balance against the regime, because of the danger that what follows could be worse including the capture of chemical weapons stocks by al-Qaida forces operating in Syria.
The concern about what could happen in a post-Assad Syria is well-founded, but it's not clear how this neutrality about outcome could mesh with Obama's vision of bringing peace and stability to the region. In fact, any serious strategy to end the Syrian war would be complex and require considerable military and diplomatic effort. It would not include the deployment of U.S. ground troops, but it would require training and equipping moderate forces so that they can face down the regime and al-Qaida. The administration envisions a political solution under which Assad and his circle are removed, leaving in place regime elements capable of joining in a political settlement. But that can happen only after the military balance is changed.
Obama has looked to Russia to use its leverage, but Moscow's refusal even to acknowledge the chemical weapons crime underlines the reality that it will oppose regime change to the bitter end. Diplomacy should be recentered on working with allies to fashion a workable post-Assad regime rather than futile appeals to Vladimir Putin.
There is a decent chance that stand-off missile and air strikes could change the military status quo, if they focus on the right targets. Foremost among these are the regime's air bases, which are used to resupply military units around the country; which house the helicopters and planes it uses for bombing; and which are staging areas for chemical weapons. Strikes that disable key bases would accomplish Mr. Obama's aim of degrading the regime's ability to stage chemical attacks while contributing to a larger strategy.