By Julian Pecquet and Ian Swanson - 08/25/13 10:00 PM EDT
A boxed-in President Obama is moving closer to approving air strikes against Syria.
More than a year after he first warned that the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line,” signals emerged Sunday on several fronts that the White House is leaning toward military action.
An administration official told reporters that the White House has “very little doubt” that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime against civilians this week. Rebel groups have claimed as many as 1,000 people were killed in the incident.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) appeared on Fox News and predicted a strike, while U.S. military leaders noted forces are positioned around Syria in anticipation of U.S. action. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the U.S. was preparing for all contingencies.
British newspaper Telegraph reported that air strikes could begin within days and that the British Navy would take part in cruise missile attacks. Obama has held phone conversations on Syria with the leaders of Great Britain and France over the last two days.
It all amounts to a significant shift for the White House and president, who with his comments and actions over the past year suggested he did not want to get drawn into the fight over Syria, particularly at a time when the public is fatigued after the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.
Obama “has kind of trapped himself,” said Doug Bandow, a senior fellow with the libertarian Cato Institute who opposes U.S. intervention in Syria.
“I don't think he thought he was going to be in this position,” Bandow said. “He didn't want to get involved in Syria. All of the sudden we're there, and he still doesn't want to do anything. So it's a real mess.”
There are several reasons why Obama would want to avoid air strikes against Syria.
There is little public support for military action, even if it is shown that chemical weapons were used.
Sixty percent of Americans surveyed in a Reuters/Ipsos poll said the U.S. should not intervene in Syria, compared to just nine percent that support intervention.
Twenty-five percent of those asked would support intervention if it is determined that Syria’s government has used chemical weapons, but 46 percent would oppose the action.
Obama is also keenly aware that the Iraq war helped sink his predecessor's second-term agenda. Finally, there is the danger that air strikes could be an initial step that will just pull the nation further into the Syrian civil war.
Bandow worried air strikes could prompt an unforeseen escalation if it's not seen as changing the situation on the ground.
“The dangers outweigh the benefits,” he said. “You start to get sucked in because then, of course, the argument of credibility will be used again: We have not only made promises, we've already launched military action, and still, the war goes on.”
In his only public interview since the latest allegations of chemical warfare, Obama played down America's ability to “solve a complex sectarian” conflict like Syria even as he described the possible attack as “a big event of grave concern.”
Obama raised reservations in the interview with CNN aired Friday about “being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region.”
Longtime advocates of intervention, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), suggested this week that Obama had emboldened Assad by failing to respond forcefully after concluding two months ago that he had previously used chemical weapons.
France called for “force” to be used if the latest claims are proven true, and several previously dovish Democrats began to rethink their positions.
“If the Assad regime has begun a campaign of systematic chemical weapons attacks, clearly that's going to alter even my analysis,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), one of three lawmakers to vote against arming the rebels earlier this year, told Foreign Policy.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who has opposed U.S. action in Syria, sounded Sunday as if could support it as long as it didn’t put U.S. boots on the ground in the country.
“This is not designed to bring the regime down,” he said of possible action in an interview Sunday on CNN's “State of the Union.”
He added that Congress would only back a limited U.S. mission to target Syria's chemical weapons.
Bandow opined that the “emotional” response to poison gas attacks explains the shift in support, but that it isn't sustainable. Once U.S. planes start getting shot down, he said, many advocates of action will remember their initial qualms.
However, there is also evidence in recent history that, at least initially, the public tends to rally to support the president at a time of military intervention.
That history would suggest that, despite the polling, Obama could see a shift in opinion if he ordered air strikes against Syria and made the case that it was to prevent further chemical weapons atrocities.
This story was posted at 4:30 p.m. and updated at 7:09 p.m.