What are America's military options?
06:44 - Source: CNN

Ed Husain is a New York-based senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. The author of “The Islamist” can be followed on Twitter via @Ed_Husain.

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Sectarian, ethnic, and religious dimensions have kept the U.S. away from direct involvement, writes Ed Husain

He asks: If punitive attacks on Syria are launched, what exactly are we targeting?

By bombing Syria today, we bear the burden of the instability we leave in our wake, he says

CNN  — 

Syria’s civil war is not America’s problem. Syria is surrounded by Turkey, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and other Arab nations with large standing armies and advanced military equipment. Their cowardice in acting to stop a war on their doorstep should give us pause for thought. Why will they not act, but we must?

Why is American gullibility for war so strong that countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Israel can dispense of their moral duties to the American taxpayer?

Ed Husain

Make no mistake about it: al Assad is a war criminal, having had his own civilians and soldiers slaughtered in a war to keep his family in power.

The sectarian, ethnic, and religious dimensions of the war have kept the Obama administration (rightly in my view) away from direct military involvement in the conflict.

But what has changed now? The use of chemical weapons to kill people jolts us into probable action, but millions displaced, wounded and 100,000 dead did not. Why? Because the banality of the policy shift rests on the assumptions that American cruise missiles can prevent further use of chemical weapons, provide a face-saving measure for President Barack Obama who can argue that he acted after his “red line” had been crossed in Syria, and neuter critics of Obama’s Syria policy.

READ: Why is chemical attack a red line issue?

There is no absolute certainty as to whether al Assad used chemical weapons, or rebel factions did. Al Assad has no credible motivation to use these weapons at this stage, and in this phase of the conflict. He is not losing.

If, as the Russians claim, it was al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusrah group or Free Syrian Army elements that used weapons to bait America into the conflict, then U.S. firepower would be futile in establishing how a ragtag army and terrorists obtained chemical weapons. No amount of surgical strikes on government facilities will prevent non-state actors from further use of these weapons.

What justifies intervening if Syria uses chemical weapons?

But if we believe that al Assad used these weapons, and launch punitive attacks on Syria, what exactly are we targeting? The secretive and globally isolated nature of the Assad regime and therefore his chemical stockpiles means that we do not know where these are located.

We intervened in Libya with greater confidence because Gadhafi’s chemical weapons were mostly eliminated by an international inspection arrangement prior to the Arab uprisings. By bombing Syria now we increase the risk of al Assad using chemical weapons on populations and cities that are not under government control, or to quell new rebellions. Damaging his air force and known military installation would force him to consider his more extreme options for regime survival. Syria is now a fight to the death for both sides.

READ: Gingrich: Stay out of Syria’s civil war

U.S.-led military strikes in Syria will not change the tide of the war. That is not the mission, nor is it achievable by aerial blitzing. The Syrian opposition is not a government in waiting. It is too fragmented ideologically, overwrought by al Qaeda affiliates, deeply anti-American, and dominated by suburban fighters with little control of major cities, mercenaries who are not committed to peaceful coexistence with Syria’s religious Christians, nor its Jewish neighbor.

Syria after al Assad will be worse. A new civil war will break out between opposition factions. By bombing Syria today, we bear the burden of the instability we leave in our wake.

President Obama imprudently mentioned a “red line” in Syria and is now hostage to fortune. The president has changed his policy stance on using illegal wire taps, closing Guantanamo Bay, gay marriage, and more.

Opinion: 5 reasons the U.S. must intervene in Syria

The heat of the moment and push from the chattering classes to “do something” without knowing what will consume Obama into another Middle East war. He beat Hillary Clinton as an anti-Iraq war candidate.

By intervening, Syria may well prove to be Obama’s war, bequeathed to a new president in 2016. Civilian casualties are inevitable: The images on our screens will not be Syrians using chemical weapons to kill each other, but American bombs creating carnage and killings in yet another Muslim country.

READ: For U.S., Syria is truly a problem from hell

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ed Husain.