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White House Syria Deliberations: 'Do Less' Camp is Still Winning

Today, after a weekend of behind the scenes scrambling to deal with the largest use of chemical weapons use in Syria to date, Secretary of State John Kerry finally took to the dias and brought the ruckus. "Let me be clear," he said, sounding appropriately incensed. "The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders, by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity." He said the President believes "there must be accountability" for such crimes and that "the President will be making an informed decision about how"—not whether—"to respond to this indiscriminate use of chemical weapons."

Immediately afterwards, White House press secretary Jay Carney started his daily press briefing by saying "I have no announcement of my own to make at the top" and opened it up to questions, each of which he answered with the same drowsy mix of refusing both to speculate and engage in hypotheticals. It was as if Carney and Kerry were talking about two different situations, two different countries. 

So what's going on?

In times like these, when events in Syria have unequivovally pushed the U.S. face-first into a red line of its own drawing, whoever knows what comes next isn't talking—or talking off the record—and the ones talking (in "shoulds" and "musts") likely don't know what comes next.

That said, this is what we do know. As always, the administration is split on action in Syria, and on what, if anything, should be done. General Martin Dempsey is largely against intervention. Samantha Power, U.N. Ambassador and author of A Problem from Hell, a scathing attack on powers that sit by in the face of slaughter, wants to do something. Looking at the roster of the fifteen people at the President's meeting to discuss the Syria crisis, they split roughly in two: the do more camp, and the do less camp. "People have been pretty stable in their positions," said a source familiar with the situation. "I don’t think anyone has changed their position."

The lone exception was Kerry, who had pushed for action on Libya, but has been hesitant on Syria: he has been gunning for that peace conference in Geneva. Today, he was likely trotted out to give the President some cover as the U.N. inspectors finish their work—and get the hell out of Syria before the fireworks start. 

By Monday evening, the policy was still very much up in the air, but the "do less" camp seemed to be winning, probably because of Obama's notorious reluctance on such things. The outlines of what the Obama administration is likely to do was starting to take shape: the U.S. would likely act, but it would act mostly to impose a sense of consequence, stopping short of doing something obviously designed to shift the balance inside Syria between Assad and the motley rebel crew. Envisioned thus, U.S. military action would probably target things like the headquarters of airforce intelligence or other targets associated with the distribution of chemical weapons, but would probably spare Assad's deadly air force. That is, it would do enough damage to show the world that Obama's word is bond, that a red line—however accidentally drawn, however tardily noticed—is a red line, but would stop short of weakening Assad enough to let some increasingly shady people topple him. Retaliating for chemical weapons use, says one administration official, "would not be because of a desire to intervene in Syria, but to prevent future chemical weapons use."

As for the Russians, the U.S. has long ago correctly concluded that Russia has less influence on Assad than we imagine, and that it has practically no ability to retaliate should the U.S. strike. Russia sells weapons to Assad and supports him financially, but it won't tell him what to do, nor does it want to. It's also probably none too happy that Assad has pushed the envelope so obviously and so gruesomely because now Russia has to strut around doing its usual, increasingly ridiculous song and dance to give him cover, insisting on absolute unknowability and absolute precision as to whether and when chemical weapons were used. But it won't retaliate if the U.S. strikes, mostly because there's not all that much it can do, and because Syria is still far smaller in the Kremlin's imagination than it is in the White House's. Moreover, Sergei Lavrov, Russia's übertan foreign minister, said as much today. "But, of course," he said, "we're not going to war with anyone" over Syria.    

So Russia may veto any U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria and make a rhetorical fuss about suddenly caring about international law, but it won't get in America's way once the Tomohawks are streaking towards Damascus. More likely, it will just grumble on the sidelines.

Ultimately, whatever the White House decides—and it will do so painstakingly, almost theatrically so, to demonstrate that, unlike its predecessors, it has not rushed heedless into another Mulsim war—it is likely to be limited and surgically precise in its message to Assad: you can go on killing people in your murky civil war, just not with chemical weapons, well, not on a large scale.