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Robinson: Punishing Bashar al-Assad is a must

History says don't do it. Most Americans say don't do it. But President Barack Obama has to punish Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad's homicidal regime with a military strike — and hope that history and the people are wrong.

If it is true that the regime killed hundreds of civilians with nerve gas in a Damascus suburb last week — and U.S. officials say there is “very little doubt” — then Obama has no choice. The use of chemical weapons cannot be tolerated, and any government or group that does so must be made to suffer real consequences. Obama should uphold this principle by destroying some of Assad's military assets with cruise missiles.

I say this despite my belief that Obama has been right to keep the United States out of the Syrian civil war. It is not easy to watch such suffering and destruction — more than 100,000 people killed, millions displaced, cities pounded into rubble — and do nothing. Now I believe we are obliged to hit Assad. But then what? Anyone who says we should “support the rebels” is making a wish, not a plan. Support them how? The one sure means of achieving regime change — an all-out, Iraq-style invasion — is out of the question. We could give heavy weapons, capable of shooting down Assad's planes and destroying his tanks, to some of the moderate rebel groups. But this materiel could end up in the hands of Islamist, anti-Western factions that seem a good bet to prevail in a post-Assad Syria.

What about imposing a no-fly zone? Some people talk about this option as if it were a breeze, but in fact it would be a major undertaking. Syrian air defenses, which are substantial, would have to be destroyed. The zone would have to be patrolled by U.S. or allied aircraft. And if Assad held on, there would be pressure for deeper American involvement. A Reuters/Ipsos poll released Sunday found that about 60 percent of Americans believe the United States should stay out of Syria's civil war, while only 9 percent favor intervention. If it is proved that Assad used chemical weapons, the poll found, support for U.S. intervention rises to 25 percent. But 46 percent of those surveyed — a large plurality — said that even in the face of such proof, the United States should not act.

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