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What Obama must tell Americans about a US strike on Syria

Airstrikes on Syria would be meant to defend international law protecting civilians from chemical weapons. Yet can President Obama say no civilians will be killed in US 'surgical' strikes?

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This image taken from an amateur video appears to show a presumed UN staff member photographing a chemical-weapons canister in a suburb of Damascus Aug. 26. UN experts collected samples and testimony from Syrian doctors and victims of an alleged chemical weapons attack.

AP Photo

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At the heart of President Obama’s threat to attack Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons is a basic principle of international humanitarian law: the protection of innocent people from indiscriminate harm in warfare. Poisonous gases, by their nature, may float anywhere. They can wipe out entire neighborhoods – as the world saw in horrific videos from Syria last week.

Yet if Mr. Obama expects public support for an attack on Syria’s military, he must make a persuasive case that the US military will not also harm innocent Syrians even as it tries to enforce this humanitarian principle. The possibility of causing civilian casualties during US airstrikes in order to prevent further civilian casualties by Syria itself raises moral problems.

The likely US weapon of choice in Syria – cruise missiles – can more precisely target ground objects than ever. The Pentagon has made great efforts to achieve “surgical” strikes of “strictly” military targets. And many experts predict Obama will choose the lowest-cost means of striking the armed forces of President Bashar al-Assad.

Nonetheless, such technology is war on the cheap. Soldiers on the ground are far more effective in avoiding civilian casualties. They might, for example, be better at detecting if Syrian forces have placed chemically loaded artillery shells or rockets near civilian areas. Close up, the lines of warfare are less blurry than from a satellite.

Yet troop warfare would come at a great price in lives and national treasure. The American people need to know if the cost of an attack on Syria is worth upholding an international principle of war.

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