Today’s admission that the U.S. Government believes that the Syrian regime has employed chemical warfare agents (chemical weapons) in its ongoing civil war places the Obama administration on the horns of a dilemma. Washington has twisted itself into the proverbial pretzel trying to avoid a deeper engagement in the Syrian civil war. Over the past two years, their excuses for inaction have multiplied and morphed in shameless fashion. They have hidden behind everything from "we can’t act without Russian permission" to the president’s appalling claim that he had to weigh intervention in Syria to alleviate the suffering there against the humanitarian needs of Congo—as if he were contemplating intervention there and despite the fact that he has intervened in neither country.
Nonetheless, the administration is right to be cautious about intervention in Syria. The United States could intervene—there is even a good case to be made that the U.S. and its allies could end the civil war in a positive, hopeful fashion. But doing so would require a huge effort, precisely on the scale of Iraq (as Tom Friedman has rightly warned in the New York Times) because "solving" the Syrian civil war would require an effort tantamount to the surge in Iraq—but lasting longer to prevent the slide back into civil war that we are seeing in Iraq today.
Thus, the administration is understandably wary of intervention in Syria, regardless of the poverty of the excuses it has used to justify its stance. And going after Syrian chemical warfare could create a slippery slope toward general intervention. First, Syria has a large chemical warfare infrastructure and the regime’s forces have reportedly stockpiled large amounts in over a dozen locations. Taking out all of these sites—and others if the regime is able to disperse them before we can destroy them—it could require a large military effort, possibly involving the insertion of significant special operations forces and thus raising the possibility of ground battles. Military operations are inherently unpredictable and the hundreds of air sorties and hundreds or even thousands of troops that might be involved in such an effort could become the start of an escalatory spiral that the administration clearly seeks to avoid (even though it might still someday be unavoidable).
However, the Syrian regime’s use of chemical warfare poses an equally vexing problem for the administration. The greatest problem is that if the regime believes that it can use chemical warfare with impunity, the war itself—and its spillover into neighboring states will become many times worse. As bad as the Syrian civil war already is, if the regime is employing chemical warfare liberally, deaths will rise and panic will soar. Refugee flows could turn into a torrent, swamping Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon. Neighboring Sunni populations would become infuriated and either demand that their governments openly intervene in Syria to stop the fighting, or greatly increase the covert flow of arms, money and jihadists to the opposition. Either and both would be both probable and extremely dangerous for all of the states involved—as would any effort to resist the calls for intervention. In short, unchecked chemical warfare use could have severe repercussions for the rest of the region, and in ways that would threaten American interests.
Add to this the reputational costs of the Obama administration failing to back up its self-proclaimed "red line"—which could have an impact on Iranian thinking, or on Israeli thinking about America’s commitment on Iran—and the administration faces real risks if it does nothing too.
At least for the moment, there would seem to be an easy out for the administration : the demonstration shot. The easiest move by the administration would be to pick out a valuable, discreet target of the regime’s and obliterate it—with cruise missiles and possibly manned aircraft as well. The strike would be a warning to the Syrians that worse would follow if the regime does not desist from further chemical warfare use and a demonstration that Washington will back up its red line.
That seems to be the administration’s obvious recourse here, but the real question then would be the Syrian regime’s response. In particular if the regime backs down and does not use more chemical warfare, it will be a sign of optimism about their prospects in the civil war—that they are still more afraid of the Americans than the opposition. On the other hand, if they have become desperate, and fear defeat by the opposition more than whatever the U.S. does, they might shrug off such a limited strike and employ everything in their arsenal to try to stave off defeat. In that case, then the administration will really face a dilemma about what to do next.