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Whatever Comes Next, Syria Is Forcing a New U.S. Strategy for the Middle East

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Somehow, despite their best efforts to stay out of Syria, President Obama’s new team of national security leaders, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry, have found themselves on the precipice of yet another war. Just a few months since taking office, the anti-war, Vietnam veteran duo now face a difficult personal and political choice with their president — how to respond to the international outrage over the use of chemical weapons in Syria, possibly with lethal military force, despite overwhelming opinion polls showing war-weary Americans would prefer the Pentagon look the other way.

The Obama administration has done its best to stay out of the two-year civil war in Syria and has been cautious in dealing with other Mideast nations during the Arab spring. In the past several weeks, critics on the left and right, in Congress and the diplomatic corps, have chastised the administration for not having a clearer strategy beyond the “lead from behind,” wait-and-see approach to Syria and Egypt.

President Obama downplayed U.S. influence in Syria as “overstated” and Hagel conceded “limited” power to stop the recent bloodshed in Egypt. But last week’s alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria appear to have given the White House no choice but to lead. Whatever comes next, it’s the first step in the new U.S. strategy for the Middle East pundits long have wanted.

Obama huddled with his national security team over the weekend, with Hagel participating by phone from Malaysia, and spoke with close allies Britain and France to “discuss possible responses” to claims that a chemical attack near Damascus killed hundreds of Syrians last week. Hagel, in Indonesia on Monday, said the U.S. was still examining evidence of the attack and weighing options. 

If there is any action taken it will be in concert with the international community,” Hagel said. A senior U.S. official told reporters traveling with Hagel that the secretary planned to consult directly with his British and French counterparts for the first time since the chemical weapons attack. The official later said the administration believed the attack appeared to come at the hand of the Syrian regime, but would not offer an official conclusion by the U.S. intelligence community.

Our confidence is growing that this was in fact an episode involving the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime,” the official said. ”What we’re talking about here, especially with respect to the U.N., is a set of classic delaying tactics on the part of this regime. Not only delaying tactics, but with continued military strikes in the area. And as time goes on, it becomes harder to collect, examine and analyze information to reach a conclusion about chemical weapons. But strong signs are pointing in that direction.”

[Related: How Egypt Helps Assad]

A United Nations inspection team is investigating the site of the chemical attack. Several news outlets reported that the team came under sniper fire as it tried to reach the site, despite a temporary ceasefire. But a senior administration official said that Syria’s concession to let the inspection team in came too little, too late. “If the Syrian government had nothing to hide and wanted to prove to the world that it had not used chemical weapons in this incident, it would have ceased its attacks on the area and granted immediate access to the UN — five days ago,” the official said.

“There is very little doubt at this point that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime against civilians in this incident,” the official said, in a statement.

Momentum is growing quickly for military action against Syria. The U.S. Navy has moved ships to the region capable of firing cruise missiles, France is urging a “reaction with force” and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the situation in Syria “cannot continue.” And Turkey said it would support an international repsonse. Russia, however, is warning the United States “not to repeat mistakes of the past.”

Hagel is holding his cards close to the vest. At Malaysia’s defense ministry on Sunday, Hagel made several statements to the effect that war did not solve disputes. Asked to elaborate, on a stop Monday in Indonesia, the U.S. defense secretary said that nations have a right to self defense and cited “humanitarian issues” among “many dynamics before you commit a nation to war.” 

“I didn’t say — would never say, have never said — that no nation should ever go to war. I wish the world was such that nations didn’t go to war. But my reference was about resolving differences, about resolving political disputes,” he said.

By this point, cruise missiles alone may not be enough to alter the Syrian conflict definitively. But any type of involvement there will entangle the United States into another conflict in the Middle East. As Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey warned, “Once we take action, we should be prepared for what comes next.”

Stephanie Gaskell reported from Washington, D.C.