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US military’s task limited, but exceedingly difficult

Black smoke rose from government forces shelling in Damascus earlier in the week.
Black smoke rose from government forces shelling in Damascus earlier in the week.Credit: United media office of Arbeen via AP

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WASHINGTON — President Obama’s proposed authorization for the use of force appears to be straightforward: “deter, disrupt, prevent, and degrade” the future use of chemical weapons by Syria.

Yet at the same time, Obama — and a growing number of members of Congress, which is slated to vote on the proposal next week — insists that US officials would not design any strike that seeks to topple the regime or involve US ground troops in a civil war.

It is a paradoxical mission for the Pentagon, which is built for winning wars. Any strike against the Syrian regime, military specialists said, must be painful enough to force President Bashir Assad to rethink using poison gas but not so damaging that it could dislodge his grip on power or lead him to let loose on his own people or his neighbors.

“They are trying to thread the needle,” Jeffrey Martini, a Middle East analyst at the government-funded Rand Corporation, said of the administration.

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