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A  child walks between dusty tents to look for his family in the Quru Gusik refugee camp set up near the border with Syria, August 24, 2013. United Nations aid agencies say the number of children fleeing Syria has now reached one million.
A child walks between dusty tents to look for his family in the Quru Gusik refugee camp set up near the border with Syria, August 24, 2013. United Nations aid agencies say the number of children fleeing Syria has now reached one million. (Flo Smith, NurPhoto, Zuma Press/MCT)

STUTTGART, Germany — If the U.S. eventually launches missiles at Syrian military assets to punish government forces for the alleged use of chemical weapons, such an assault would do little to tip the balance in favor of anti-regime fighters waged in a 2½-year-old civil war.

Critics say such a narrowly focused strike would be merely symbolic and could have unintended consequences, such as sparking a broader regional conflict.

Perhaps the greatest argument for military action would be the message it would send to a key ally in the region: Israel.

“In the back of a lot of Israelis’ minds is the Iranian issue,” said Azriel Bermant, a research fellow with the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies. “If Obama is not going to act according to his red lines, will he also not act on Iran either?”

With President Barack Obama declaring last week that he would seek congressional approval for military strikes against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, the prospect of U.S. inaction has become a distinct possibility. With deep divisions among U.S. lawmakers on both sides, it is unclear whether Obama will win support for military action.

Supporters of military action, such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., say congressional inaction would be “catastrophic in its consequences.”

Among the concerns is that the Assad regime could take U.S. ambivalence as a green light to launch another chemical attack. There also are concerns in the broader region, where Iran could take U.S. indecisiveness as a signal that Americans will be unlikely to take action should it move forward with efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon.

Robin Niblett, director of the London-based Chatham House think tank, says the main risk of inaction in Syria is that it could invite the use of chemical weapons elsewhere.

“Irrespective of the fact that the planned military strike would likely have little effect on the course of the civil war or on the suffering and death it is causing, conducting a military strike would serve notice on Assad and other leaders that the use of WMD (weapons of mass destruction) in conflict remains forbidden,” Niblett wrote in an analysis that lamented the United Kingdom’s decision not to take part in any military strike in Syria. “And it would remind such leaders that, in the absence of international consensus on how to enforce this, there is a group of nations committed to upholding this powerful norm in international affairs.”

There also are other risks of inaction. There is a perception in Israel that when it comes to containing the spread of WMDs and Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon, it could be faced with the prospect of going it alone. Israel has long made clear that it is prepared to take action to prevent such a development.

The U.S. has said that it also is opposed to a nuclear Iran, imposing stiff sanctions on the country to deter its nuclear ambitions. However, if the nuclear issue doesn’t go away, Israelis could look to Syria as a window into how the U.S. will contend with Iran.

If Israel eventually felt forced to take unilateral action against Iran, could the U.S. get sucked into the kind of larger conflict it has sought to avoid from the outset?

“We are watching America carefully. We rely on America on all fields of life, especially now when it comes to Iran,” Israeli lawmaker Nachman Shai told The Associated Press. “We need to know that on D-Day we have America next to us.”

In Israel, there is a sense that Obama is waffling.

However, there also is an appreciation of U.S. war wariness, particularly after long campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bermant said.

“The chemical weapons in Syria are a danger,” Bermant said. “Obama has clearly understood he has to act. I think we believe he will act, but that he will do it when the time is right. It’s a complex issue. But if he doesn’t take action then there will be great concern on the Iranian issue.”

vandiver.john@stripes.com

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