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Will strikes make right in Syria?

Analysis: Amid the West's scramble for consensus to strike, the only thing worse than intervening in Syria, experts say, is doing nothing.

Syria rubble 2013 08 29Enlarge
A Syrian man stands where his home once was in the Tariq al-Bab district of the northern city of Aleppo. (Pablo Tosco/AFP/Getty Images)

The problem, outlined by numerous pundits, experts, journalists and observers, boils down to a singularly dispiriting conundrum: No good can come of intervening in Syria, but inaction is a moral and political impossibility.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has appealed for patience and restraint, adding that any decision on military action should wait until the UN weapons inspectors have finished their work.

"Diplomacy should be given a chance... peace [should] be given a chance," he said.

He said the inspectors would wrap up Friday and report to him as soon as they leave Syria Saturday.

In contemplating a “punitive strike” on the Syrian regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons on civilians, the United States is flouting international law, which demands UN approval for military action outside of a direct, imminent threat to a nation’s security.

The UN Security Council is extremely unlikely to give its sanction to action in Syria. Russia, a staunch ally of the embattled regime of President Bashar al-Assad, can and doubtless will exercise its veto power. Russia has already dispatched warships to the Mediterranean in response to the US stationing ships there.

GlobalPost live blog: Action in Syria would send "strong signal," Obama says

Without apparent legal justification, President Barack Obama's administration is seeking legitimacy through like-minded allies; some of these, such as Britain, were initially committed but have since gone a bit wobbly.

Furthermore, critics say, the US government lacks a clearly defined endgame and a well thought-out strategy. A purely punitive strike has little chance of changing the balance of power on the ground. It carries risks of civilian casualties and the possibility of dragging Western powers into a prolonged and bloody conflict.

On the other hand, the world has seen the pictures of dead children. Doing nothing feels very wrong.

President Barack Obama also has his own credibility, as well as the power and prestige of the US, riding on his notorious “red line” on Syria.

“Washington in particular seems to have become convinced that nonaction on its own red line would imply a presidency that has replaced gung-ho with gun-shy to an extent that might undermine global assessments of American willingness to deploy hard power,” a team of Middle East experts on the European Council on Foreign Relations writes.

CNN’s Piers Morgan summed it up succinctly on Wednesday night: “It’s a complete mess,” he told viewers.

Legality versus legitimacy: Does it really matter?

“Using force in a situation like this could be seen as legitimate internationally and the right thing to do,” David Kaye, a former State Department lawyer, told The Washington Post. “But that’s different from saying it would be legal: It wouldn’t be, unless you had authorization of the Security Council.”

Absent UN backing, Washington has been scrambling to come up with a justification for a strike against Syria.

Several possible rationales have been floated. “Humanitarian intervention” were the stated grounds for former President Bill Clinton’s bombing campaign of Kosovo in 1999. But, as Franklin Spinney outlines in a detailed and polemical piece in Counterpunch, a left-wing website, this is an imperfect analogy at best.

“I found it truly scary to read that some high officials in the Obama administration are so disconnected from reality that they consider the 1999 war in Kosovo to be a precedent for justifying limited cruise missile strikes in Syria,” he writes, going on to outline how the bombing campaign in Kosovo did not produce the desired results. Instead of a two or three-day round of “precision bombardment,” the Kosovo campaign wore on for almost three months and failed to unseat Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

Another possibility is a move under Article 51 of the UN Charter, which outlines the right to collective self-defense.

If Turkey were to appeal to its NATO allies for protection, given that it has endured several strikes from neighboring Syria, the US could use this as at least a temporary legal fig leaf, according to CNN’s Peter Bergen.

International norms against the use of chemical weapons are also a possibility, but provide a legally tenuous justification for force. In a Thursday press conference, White House spokesman Josh Earnest repeatedly referenced the international norm that does not abide the use of chemical