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President Barack Obama, flanked by House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, left, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., speaks to media in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, before a meeting with members of Congress to discuss the situation in Syria. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Obama offers mixed message on Syria

Photo of Neil Munro
Neil Munro
White House Correspondent

President Barack Obama Tuesday sought to reassure Americans that his planned strike on Syria will have modest goals, while he repeated his rhetorically ambitious goal of removing Syria’s dictator from power.

The promise of a modest strike “is a win, win, win situation,” said Thomas Donnelly, co-director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

“Obama gets to pretend he’s done something, [Syrian dictator Bashar] al-Assad is unharmed, and it’s a win for the Iranians too” because a modest strike will undermines the U.S. security shield in the region, he said.

Obama is lobbying Congress to win backing for a military strike on Syria’s military, following the Syria military’s Aug. 21 nerve-gas attack on Syrian civilians.

He says he has the legal authority to launch a strike vital to deterring future use of chemical weapons, and he has bypassed Congress on numerous high-stakes controversies, yet he decided on Friday to delay the strike pending congressional support.

“This is a limited, proportional step that will send a clear message not only to the Assad regime, but also to other countries that may be interested in testing some of these international norms [against the use of chemical weapons], that there are consequences,” he told reporters at the outset of a Sept. 3 morning meeting with congressional leaders.

But Assad can ride out the limited strike, Donnelly said. Once it is over, “he gets to come out and say, ‘Haha,’” he said. Assad likely won’t retaliate or try to escalate, Donnelly said.

For al-Assad, the stakes of the war are essentially unlimited. If the government loses, he, his family and his Alawite sect and clan, will likely face a wave of revenge attacks and trials from long-oppressed tribal enemies and orthodox Islamic jihadis.

That’s why Assad and his Iranian backers also waged an unlimited war for two years that has killed roughly 100,000 civilians, rebels and soldiers. He has repeatedly used heavy artillery and bomber aircraft to smash rebel-held neighborhoods in cities and towns.

On Aug. 21, Assad’s military fired nerve gas into 12 rebel-held neighborhoods in Syria’s capital city, killing more than 1,400 people, according to U.S. intelligence reports.

The nerve-gas attack crossed a “red line” set by Obama last year, risking a showdown with the U.S. Air Force.

But Assad is focused on wining his war, said Donnelly. “If he needs to gas another town to defeat the opposition, he’ll do it,” Donnelly said.

The Iranians also gain from a limited U.S. strike because it would demonstrate Obama’s reluctance to use force for serious goals, said Donnelly. “Everybody in the region will observe that it is an ineffective measure,” he said.

After a missile strike, the Iranians will use it for propaganda, he said.

In his Tuesday statement, Obama repeatedly emphasized that he’s planning a limited strike, yet also suggested that he’s trying to overthrow Assad.

“So the key point that I want to emphasize to the American people: The military plan that has been developed by the joint chiefs and that I believe is appropriate is proportional. It is limited. It does not involve boots on the ground. This is not Iraq and this is not Afghanistan,” he said.

But he also said the strike “also fits into a broader strategy that we have … of strengthening of the opposition and the diplomatic and economic and political pressure required [to] … bring peace and stability not only to Syria but to the region.”

There’s no real tension between Obama’s limited means and the unlimited price he is apparently trying to impose on Assad, said Donnelly. That’s because Obama’s regime-change policy is only an “abstract goal,” he said.

Obama and leaders from several other countries are providing aid and weapons to the rebels via classified programs. The other countries include Turkey and Saudi Arabia. So far, the U.S. aid has been insufficient to overcome Syria’s military, which is backed by Iran and Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah.

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