Should UN inspectors confirm the latest revelations about the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime against Syrian civilians, an American decision to intervene in Syria will be in play. However, if one examines the two U.S. options -- going in or staying out -- on balance, the Obama administration should err on the side of restraint and hold back. For, if it decides to launch cruise missiles against Assad's chemical depots, it will be taking hazardous steps toward a deeper involvement in the Syrian maelstrom, or, if it instead takes the even riskier route and sends in troops, it will be embarking on a perilous military venture directly threatening American national security interests.
First, with the Middle East descending into chaos in recent weeks -- with civil strife in Egypt and a rising tide of anti-Americanism following the military ouster of President Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood; fresh Al Qaeda factions emerging among the rebels fighting Assad; Syrian refugee flows of almost a half million each clogging Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan; Turkey's political scene in turmoil; Lebanon fractured by internal conflict; Iraq facing a sectarian civil war -- the last thing Washington needs to do is to insert itself in any way, especially via American troops, into this boiling cauldron. The U.S. would face an impossible task of bringing an end to Syria's chemical warfare with its strikes or, alternatively, of bringing some sort of order to the fighting in Syria by using its infantry, probably requiring it to employ up to 100,000 or more troops (remember Afghanistan and Iraq?). Indisputably, in the latter case, too, it will be possibly jeopardizing US forces by exposing them to crossfire from the pro and anti-Syrian forces, each with their own grievances against the United States, as well as drawing in hundreds of other anti-American militants from all over the region, eager to slay U.S. soldiers.
Second, as General Dempsey, head of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said, the U.S. would, in any case, find it an unworkable, indeed hopeless, situation, trying to figure out which groups of rebels to ally with in trying to unseat President Assad. So many militant Sunni Al Qaeda fundamentalists have infiltrated the ranks of the insurgents that Washington today cannot ascertain whom to support and whom to avoid. Further even if America does choose a faction, it cannot be sure that they will be the ones to take over Syria after Assad is deposed.
Third, given expected Russian opposition in the UN Security Council to any US action against Syria, Washington would be starting an assault against that country without gaining the necessary authority of a UN mandate, which is the only way America can win legitimacy among the globe's nations for an armed operation against another nation.
Fourth, with a few glimmers of hope for peace still possible in the Middle East -- Secretary of State John Kerry's effort to revive talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and the possibility of new discussions with Iran to end that country's pursuit of nuclear weaponry following the election of a moderate president there -- a U.S. intervention in Syria could undermine or even terminate these missions and thus bring to a halt any chance for positive resolutions of both crises.
Finally, the polling data in the U.S. shows that Americans do not believe, in any case, that it is in the vital interest of the U.S. to help in Syria. Even if President Obama fires missiles, or dispatches US soldiers to the conflict zone, he will not have the backing of his own people to do so. Yes, he has spoken about a "red line" in Syria, but that was a year ago and circumstances have drastically changed since then. He no longer has any room for maneuver. The "red line" idea should now be dropped in favor of the U.S. focusing on its efforts to broker a peace deal with the Russians in Geneva over the Syrian conflict and hope that reason will ultimately triumph over unreason.