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August 26th, 2013
05:40 PM ET

Expert: Expect U.S. military action in Syria

United Nations inspectors are in Syria, trying to determine whether chemical weapons were used in an attack last week. But remarks from Secretary of State John Kerry indicate the U.S. has already come to a conclusion about what happened.

"The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women, and children, and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity. By any standard, it is inexcusable, and despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured, it is undeniable," Kerry said Monday.

Last August, President Barack Obama said the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a red line. Just over a year later, tens of thousands of lives have been lost.

"Secretary Kerry went far out on a limb, both in the content and ... the tone," said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. "I would frankly be surprised and then some if the United States now did not – probably together with a few other countries – take some military action."

With four U.S. Navy warships parked within striking distance of Syria, the U.S. is sending its most aggressive message yet the regime. Haas expects military action that would not put American aircraft within range of the Syrian air defense system.

"You're probably looking at sea launch cruise missiles, probably some airborne cruise missiles. But something along those lines would be the most natural sort of response for the United States to launch at this point," said Haass.

A senior administration official tells CNN any strike that the U.S. might conduct is not meant to topple Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, because they are not ready to take over.

Still, Haass said taking action is an important move.

"Chemical weapons have been used. It is important to underscore the principle, the norm, the taboo that these weapons ought to have – that no one, Syria or anybody else, now and forevermore, should be able to use such weapons, much less biological and nuclear weapons, with impunity," said Haass.

Moreover, Haass continued, the United States has already said that any use of such weapons would be a game changer.

"Any time you throw down a diplomatic gauntlet, your words have repercussions, not simply for the immediate situation, but in this case in Iran, and North Korea, and around the world," said Haass.

But, Haas said, while it is essential that the U.S. act, it should not become centrally involved in the Syrian civil war.

"If we want to help the opposition, the best way to do it is through considerable arming of those elements of the opposition with agendas we can support," said Haass.

"There's an important distinction between what we need to do to signal our unhappiness over the use of chemical weapons, but also to put a ceiling on what we're doing so we don't get enmeshed in what I think could become a quagmire," said Haass.

Kerry called the use of chemical weapons a moral obscenity, and said to deny a chemical weapons attack took place would be cynical and amount to a cover up.

But Russia says it sees no evidence of a chemical attack.

"The Secretary of State was signaling to Moscow is that we're simply going to bypass the United Nations Security Council," said Haass, where Russia would likely veto any resolution authorizing military action against Syria.

The U.S. will find other organizations, perhaps NATO, or the Arab league, or put together an informal group of nations that will support this effort both diplomatically and militarily, said Haass.

"If Russia wants to stick to what the Secretary of State properly called an essentially outrageous position, it will find itself diplomatically isolated, and on the sidelines," said Haas.

It is a model the U.S. successfully used in the Kosovo conflict in the late 1990s.

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