Accompanied by the usual political paraphernalia, everything now points to a selective attack on Syria, with Washington leading a new "coalition of the willing" (not to be confused with multilateralism). Though every case is different, and many an example demonstrates the human capacity for stumbling incessantly on the same stone, it is useful to consider accumulated experience, to determine what has brought us to this point, and what we can expect in the immediate future.
So far an intervention on the ground is not contemplated (Iraq, Afghanistan), and not even the total overthrow of a regime (Libya). In fact, Obama has arrived at this point after learning from what happened in Libya, where he followed a script that he himself believed was going to exempt him from another messy involvement in the region. From Libya he has drawn a conclusion: that it is better to go in the company of Islamic partners (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar and Turkey), to avoid clash-of-civilization readings. And that, if political will exists, UN endorsement is hardly more than a non-binding formality (in Iraq its absence failed to stop the adventure, while in Libya the UN's two favorable resolutions were inadmissibly stretched, arming the rebels, attacking non-mandated targets and deploying special-operations units).
Above all, the US president understands that the problem is not so much about overthrowing a dictator (Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi) as about finding a reliable alternative. Lastly, he is aware that arming the so-called rebels may lead (Mali and Niger) to an unmanageable state of confusion, when the main objective is stability rather than democracy.
Meanwhile, in the belief that he would thus satisfy those calling for greater military involvement, Obama let it be known that the use of chemical weapons was a red line, the crossing of which would bring serious consequences. In setting the standard so high, he thought that no one in his right mind would overstep it, and that, with this excuse, he could avoid any massive deployment of troops while contriving to attract to the negotiating table, on the one hand the more flexible rebels, and on the other the representatives of a regime which is still seen as a lesser evil (after all, Assad does not question or threaten any vital interest of Washington, and is preferable to Islamist groups such as the Al-Nusra Front). But now, when Kerry has publicly accused the regime of using chemicals on its enemies, Obama is under rising pressure to do something so as not to diminish his country's security credibility (even if this is only because others, including Pyongyang and Tehran, might feel encouraged to breach other supposed red lines).
Seen from this angle, it is foreseeable that Obama will go to great lengths to limit the extent of the coming strikes to chemical arsenals and certain command and control installations. Though knowing he will be criticized by those who until now have been demanding that he do something, he prefers to accept the cost of disregarding international law, rather than deliver more armaments to rebels whose intentions he (rightly) distrusts.
What he does appear to trust in (and this is little less than asking for the moon) is that the forseeable missiles and air strikes will be "clean" (that is, without American casualties, and without "collateral damage"). He also may be dreaming that Assad and his allies will get the message - that is, understand that there is no intention of overthrowing him, but only of getting him to the table in Geneva, to find a negotiated solution that will not leave Syria fragmented and in the hands of jihadists. And into the bargain, persuade him to refrain from reprisals against those who are still attacking him, and from any new chemical attacks before his arsenal is destroyed. Everyone is entitled to their hopes.
Jesús A. Nuñez Villaverde is co-director of the Institute for Studies on Conflicts and Humanitarian Action.