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A cautious approach to Syria

Although the Pentagon’s top leaders told Congress Wednesday they’re doing the due diligence on a potential campaign against Syria, the possibility of actual missions seemed remote.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey told Senate lawmakers that the gears in the Building have cranked out a “commander’s-level assessment” of the strategic picture in Syria, but that’s it. As yet, there are no detailed plans matching units to missions or targets, he said, and that kind of preparation wouldn’t begin without orders from President Obama.

Proponents of intervention in Syria made both a principled and strategic case for American involvement, but Dempsey and Secretary Panetta urged caution. People are being butchered, said Arizona Sen. John McCain. Yes, but we might kill many innocent people ourselves with air strikes, Panetta said, and if we end up stuck in the middle of a civil war, we’d only make it worse.

These Syrians willing to lay down their lives for freedom clearly aren’t al Qaeda fighters, McCain said, or at least most of them aren’t. Maybe, but we know almost nothing about the 100 Syrian opposition groups, Panetta said, so we don’t know how they’d respond to direct international support or a power vacuum if the government fell.

President Bashar al Assad’s downfall would be a huge strategic blow to Iran, McCain said; he quoted CentCom boss Gen. James Mattis as saying it’d be the worst setback for Tehran in 20 years. Absolutely, Panetta said, but we believe Assad’s regime can’t last, and the Syrian resistance is growing and gaining momentum even amid his crackdown.

(Panetta did not connect the dots and say the U.S. gets a strategic win either by helping knock down Assad or letting him fall on his own, but that seems to be the case.)

If all this back and forth seems familiar, it should – it brings back memories of last year’s run up to the intervention in Libya. But Panetta and Dempsey cautioned that there are many important differences between the two. NATO has ruled out getting involved in Syria, for example; and Syria’s modern air defenses and military might mean a campaign there wouldn’t just be a turkey shoot.

There are other important differences at home, too. If you thought relatively few voices were calling for a Libyan intervention by this point in the story last year, the support for a Syrian campaign is even smaller. Part of the reason could be that other hawks want to go straight into a war with Iran, and part of it could be that Americans are just tired of war altogether.

Voters’ and lawmakers’ appetites for new military missions have not been the same since the onset of the Libya intervention, which congressional critics in both parties said involved too little consultation with the Hill. Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions brought back last year’s war powers showdown Wednesday in an exchange with Panetta, who was explaining that the U.S. had to get international backing to make a Syrian campaign legal.

Sessions, a deft cross-examiner, pounced. U.S. military forces get their legal authority to operate from the commander-in-chief and Congress, he said – they do not need permission from international bodies or “extraterritorial” laws. Sessions said it sounded like Panetta was telling the Senate that the Obama administration would get international permission to act in Syria and then tell Congress, rather than ask Congress for authority and then go to the U.N.

There’ll be more where that came from if talk of a Syria intervention continues to gain steam. Republicans might love to set another political trap for Obama like the one they sprung with Libya, and of all the election year battles the White House has to fight, it might try to skip that one.

Of course, as all the wrangling plays out in Washington and other Western capitals, Assad’s killing continues. Clinton kept up her criticism of the regime on Wednesday after a meeting with Poland’s foreign minister.

“The regime’s refusal to allow humanitarian workers to help feed the hungry, tend to the injured, bury the dead marks a new low,” she said. “Tons of food and medicine are standing by while more civilians die and the regime launches new assaults. This is unacceptable, and we agree completely with the great majority of the international community. The regime must, as it promised last November, withdraw its forces, release political prisoners, permit peaceful protests, and allow international journalists to do their job, which is to tell the truth.”

Assad’s government shows no sign of listening. The end of the Syria crisis appears to depend either on his good will, still more “bite” from the sanctions, or international action. None of those looks particularly likely in the short term.

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