President Barack Obama says he hasn't made a final decision about a military strike against Syria. But he says he's considering a limited and narrow action in response to a chemical weapons attack that he says Syria'sgovernment carried out last week.
“We don't know how hard they're going to hit [President Bashar] Assad, but clearly they're going to hit Assad,” says Joshua Landis, a leading Syria watcher and the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “What Obama articulated very clearly is that we can hit him hard enough to dissuade him from using chemical weapons again. So it's worth it to try to extend that and punish Assad and make him think twice about using again.”
Obama says that attack was a challenge to the world and threatens U.S. national security.
Obama's comment came after the U.S. released an intelligence assessment that found with "high confidence" that Syrian President Bashar Assad's government carried out a chemical weapons attack last week.
The U.S. says the attack killed more than 1,400 people.
Russia and China have said that they would block any U.N. resolution that authorizes force, but the U.S. has signaled it would act even without its backing.
“They don't want America to use this as a pretext to bring Syria into their sphere of influence,” Landis says. “There is still a big power game going on in the world, and this is about realpolitik. So they're protecting their clients.”
Landis says of the hundreds of militias fighting against the Assad regime in Syria, the strongest are affiliated with al-Qaeda and other Salafist groups that are very anti-American.
“If they win, they're going to get all the chemical weapons,” Landis says. “If al-Qaeda gets them, then we've got a real problem on our hands. There is no government-in-waiting in Syria. America for two-and-a-half years has been trying to organize the Syrian opposition into a government-in-waiting, and they've failed.”
Landis also says the opposition in Syria is worried America won’t do enough in a response to the use of chemical weapons, putting Assad’s back against a wall.
“That's the pressure on Assad to use the weapons he has and to kill his enemies in bigger and bigger numbers,” Landis says. “If he begins to lose in the long run, he's going to use everything he has.”