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Hold Your Fire!

The tentacles of the Syrian conflict reach far and caustically across countries, sects, denominations and almost every other kind of social grouping imaginable, making this fight very difficult to analyze, let alone offer solutions to. "Our biggest problem is ignorance; we're pretty ignorant about Syria," said Ryan C. Crocker, a former ambassador to Syria and Lebanon, who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan and is dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University.

A "limited, narrow" strike in Syria, as President Obama described it, would only be limited and narrow to those who choose to define it as that -- the president and those who support him in this proposed military strike.

Military action would bring us no closer to peace, it would only lessen its chances. It consequences would be sprawling and shapeless, injecting malignant opportunity into a situation where power is being channelled to those who frantically grab what they can in a vicious circle of diminishing returns.

Why after two years are we talking about military action now, when from my perspective, there has been unwillingness on the part of the international community to act with resolve since the conflict in Syria began?

Resolving the civil war in Syria, the land of my mother and much of my education, requires sitting down and talking to Iran (among many others) -- and coming to some sort of agreement with them.

To the West and particularly the U.S. that is unpalatable, and so up to 100,000 have died in over two years of ongoing fighting. However, these deaths, though vastly greater in number, have not provoked the reaction that the abhorrent deaths from chemical weapons in a Damascus suburb have.

So something has changed. Rather than seem uncaring and unflinching in the face of tragic civil war, the West's rhetoric involved describing the existence of a red line, which was the use of chemical weapons. Now it has been crossed, the making of a decision while the world watches has been forced to the forefront.

But to me, there is a fundamental assumption which skewers this whole debate. And that is, it is assumed that a military strike will achieve the moral objectives being debated. President Assad will be punished, and no more people will die as a result of chemical weapons.

But how can this be known? Is Assad the kind to be easily chastened by the wagging finger of a Tomahawk missile? Only taking him out directly would do that, and then the U.S. would be back in the business of regime change in the Middle East, an act the ramifications of which are multi-generational in length and depth of anti-feeling.

There is no question that chemical weapons attacks are a heinous abuse of humanity and power. But to assume that military strikes are an effective retribution for the crime committed is wrong.

You can target a building or an installation accurately perhaps, but you cannot target the opinions of millions of Arabs across the region accurately. No matter what the justifications for military action presented are, that will be a hard sell to a Middle Eastern public who have been burned in the past by moral debates lacking in evidence but catastrophic in consequence.

Why now, who benefits, and who appoints themselves arbiter of the law? It is lost on no one in the region that in this case the issue of evidence -- cold, hard and free from the Hollywood romanticism of saving the day -- is blurred.

Counter-claims that rebels were responsible for the chemical attack, if only by accident, already circulate. The fact is that when the Fog of War descends, the objective truth recedes and loses its sense of justice, and the UN weapons inspectors were only tasked with establishing whether or not chemical weapons were used, not by whom.

So the whole question of whether to strike and with what justification becomes a debate about commitment to moral absolutes, and not cold hard fact. Assad has few friends, but his crucial position in a delicate Middle Eastern power balance is appreciated by the region's inhabitants, the ones who will be left with the consequences of a military strike.

In the toolkit available to world leaders, in which the military is but one option, we must push hard for diplomatic solutions using all the political weight and relationships the key players have in that region. Dr. Martin L. King, whose historic March was memorialized last week, reminds us in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, that "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Dr. King's ammunition was not lethal retaliation but conversation and policy-making.

President Obama along with other world leaders, including those in the Arab world who sadly seem to be playing parochial and self-interested games, has the ability to define the outcome much more positively. The scale of cooperation he will encounter across the world will far exceed that he can amass for military action.

Syria cannot withstand a constant war zone lifestyle, and America cannot afford to enter a war it cannot win. I agree with Mr. Crocker who says it is best to come with a response that leaves the Syrians, the region, and the United States in a better position rather than entwined in an uncertain outcome.

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