Syria was not an issue that affected the U.S. national interest until Obama declared a red line. It escalated in importance at that point not because Syria is critical to the United States, but because the credibility of its stated limits are of vital importance. Obama's problem is that the majority of the American people oppose military intervention, Congress is not fully behind an intervention and those now rooting the United States on are not bearing the bulk of the military burden -- nor will they bear the criticism that will follow the inevitable civilian casualties, accidents and misdeeds that are part of war regardless of the purity of the intent.
The question therefore becomes what the United States and the new coalition of the willing will do if the red line has been crossed. The fantasy is that a series of airstrikes, destroying only chemical weapons, will be so perfectly executed that no one will be killed except those who deserve to die. But it is hard to distinguish a man's soul from 10,000 feet. There will be deaths, and the United States will be blamed for them.
The military dimension is hard to define because the mission is unclear. Logically, the goal should be the destruction of the chemical weapons and their deployment systems. This is reasonable, but the problem is determining the locations where all of the chemicals are stored. I would assume that most are underground, which poses a huge intelligence problem. If we assume that perfect intelligence is available and that decision-makers trust this intelligence, hitting buried targets is quite difficult. There is talk of a clean cruise missile strike. But it is not clear whether these carry enough explosives to penetrate even minimally hardened targets. Aircraft carry more substantial munitions, and it is possible for strategic bombers to stand off and strike the targets.
Even so, battle damage assessments are hard. How do you know that you have destroyed the chemicals -- that they were actually there and you destroyed the facility containing them? Moreover, there are lots of facilities and many will be close to civilian targets and many munitions will go astray. The attacks could prove deadlier than the chemicals did. And finally, attacking means al Assad loses all incentive to hold back on using chemical weapons. If he is paying the price of using them, he may as well use them. The gloves will come off on both sides as al Assad seeks to use his chemical weapons before they are destroyed.
A war on chemical weapons has a built-in insanity to it. The problem is not chemical weapons, which probably can't be eradicated from the air. The problem under the definition of this war would be the existence of a regime that uses chemical weapons. It is hard to imagine how an attack on chemical weapons can avoid an attack on the regime -- and regimes are not destroyed from the air. Doing so requires troops. Moreover, regimes that are destroyed must be replaced, and one cannot assume that the regime that succeeds al Assad will be grateful to those who deposed him. One must only recall the Shia in Iraq who celebrated Saddam's fall and then armed to fight the Americans.
Arming the insurgents would keep an air campaign off the table, and so appears to be lower risk. The problem is that Obama has already said he would arm the rebels, so announcing this as his response would still allow al Assad to avoid the consequences of crossing the red line. Arming the rebels also increases the chances of empowering the jihadists in Syria.
When Obama proclaimed his red line on Syria and chemical weapons, he assumed the issue would not come up. He made a gesture to those in his administration who believe that the United States has a moral obligation to put an end to brutality. He also made a gesture to those who don't want to go to war again. It was one of those smart moves that can blow up in a president's face when it turns out his assumption was wrong. Whether al Assad did launch the attacks, whether the insurgents did, or whether someone faked them doesn't matter. Unless Obama can get overwhelming, indisputable proof that al Assad did not -- and that isn't going to happen -- Obama will either have to act on the red line principle or be shown to be one who bluffs. The incredible complexity of intervening in a civil war without becoming bogged down makes the process even more baffling.
Obama now faces the second time in his presidency when war was an option. The first was Libya. The tyrant is now dead, and what followed is not pretty. And Libya was easy compared to Syria. Now, the president must intervene to maintain his credibility. But there is no political support in the United States for intervention. He must take military action, but not one that would cause the United States to appear brutish. He must depose al Assad, but not replace him with his opponents. He never thought al Assad would be so reckless. Despite whether al Assad actually was, the consensus is that he was. That's the hand the president has to play, so it's hard to see how he avoids military action and retains credibility. It is also hard to see how he takes military action without a political revolt against him if it goes wrong, which it usually does.