The guided-missile destroyer USS Barry launches a Tomahawk missile from the ship's bow.
Tomahawk missile: Their use against Syria could have unpredictable results. Photo by Reuters
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All signs are pointing to an intervention in Syria in the near future: The United States has toughened its official line on Syria; British Prime Minister David Cameron cut his vacation short calling in a special cabinet meeting; the head of the U.S. military, Martin Dempsey, was in Jordan coordinating with allies, and in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, after a special military consultation, that though Israel is not a player in the Syrian conflict, it would respond forcefully if attacked - a direct threat leveled at Syrian President Bashar Assad.

An American strike, meant to punish and deter, is seemingly only days away. The United States will have to act soon since any further delay will be embarrassing to the Obama administration after a pattern of indecisiveness in the face of crises in the Arab world in general, and Syria in particular. Since the United States is not planning a lengthy military operation but momentary and powerful strike, and assuming the plans have been ready for a long while, U.S. forces can deploy as soon as a decision is made. Cruise missile-carrying warships are already stationed in the Mediterranean, not too far from the Syrian shores, and U.S. fighter jets are likewise in attack range.

The Obama administration will carry out a strike because this time, after declaring chemical weapons a "red line," the president's hands are tied. The United States dragged it feet for 6 weeks following the chemical attack in the village of Khan al-Assal near Aleppo in March, before Israel released its intelligence findings and Washington was forced to admit the facts . This time around it took the United States less than a week to reach an unequivocal conclusion. Still, the apparent decision to carry out a strike against Assad as punishment for the massacre of civilians does not mean that the it will act to topple the regime. The United States has learned painful lessons from orchestrating regime changes in Iraq and Afghanistan (and to a lesser extent in Libya). American public opinion will no longer tolerate the idea of prolonged military presence with boots on the ground, much less clips of U.S. soldiers escorting Arab children to school under mortar fire and sniper shots. From Washington to the Midwest, the Middle East is now viewed as a region plagued by disaster, a entanglement to be avoided.

Most likely, the U.S. will do the bare minimum and attack but then swiftly disengage. Such an approach dictates a particular set of targets: Not symbols of the regime but strictly military targets such as missile bases, anti-aircraft batteries and perhaps chemical weapons sites. Western intelligence agencies know the locations of at least 90 percent of the Syrian chemical weapons bases. According to various reports, the components are stored separately and assembled when an order is given – meaning that a strike won't trigger a chemical reaction.

Assad, it seems, would be able to withstand such an attack and remain on his feet. It wouldn't stop him from continuing his onslaught on the rebel forces, who are currently preoccupied by infighting. An American strike, aside from countering criticism that Washington is not true to its word, might also serve, to a certain extent, as a deterrent against future chemical weapons use. Intervention might also galvanize the opposition groups. Still, to turn the tide in the civil war, the United States would have to resort to a prolonged air strike, which is the last thing the Americans want, especially since there is no one way to know that Assad's replacement will be any better than the murderous tyrant himself.

Israel, as Netanyahu declared on Tuesday, is not currently a player, and wishes to remain on the sidelines. Even when retaliating to fire on the Golan Heights, Israel has maintained a low profile. Still, intelligence estimates that Assad will not to open another front with Israel must be taken with a grain of salt. Indeed, common sense says he will refrain from attacking Israel, just as he remained quiet after at least four Israel strikes in Syria. On the other hand, the same logic cannot explain why Assad decided to allow the massacre of the citizens in a chemical attack last week. Even with Israel's excellent intelligence in Syria, predicting developments in Syria is tricky business.