A limited military strike against Syria might convince the Assad regime not to use chemical weapons again but it won't change the balance of power in the Syrian civil war or bring about President Obama's stated goal of regime change, analysts and rebels say.
Syrian President Bashar Assad "has used all kinds of weapons, chemical and cluster bombs during massacres in Syria," said Abu Jaafar al-Mugarbel, an activist based in Homs, in western Syria.
"There is nothing that can stop the regime from doing that except military intervention. It is not the best way forward but there is nothing else after all that has happened," he said.
Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday that it is clear the Assad regime used chemical weapons last week and that Obama believes such action should lead to consequences. He made his remarks from Jordan as United Nations inspectors were investigating the site where the alleged chemical weapons massacre happened outside of Damascus.
"President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use chemical weapons," Kerry said. "Nothing today is more serious."
The attack should "shock the consciousness of the world," Kerry said. "This is about the large scale indiscriminate use of weapons that the civilized world long ago agreed should never be used."
U.S. officials have said Obama is considering military options after the gas attack last week left as many as 1,300 people dead. French and British officials have said a limited, punitive strike is under consideration.
A limited strike would allow Obama to say he's following through on his warning a year ago that Assad would incur U.S. "game changing" action if he used chemical weapons, but it would also allow Assad to continue prosecuting a war that has already cost more than 100,000 Syrian lives, caused radicals to stream into Syria and spread violence into neighboring countries, said Tony Badran, an analyst at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
"The casualty toll, the ability of unsavory actors to further entrench themselves, the ability of Assad to consolidate a part of the country under his control and continuing to destabilize neighbors -- all that stuff continues to play out," under a limited strike, Badran said.
It's not even clear whether a limited strike would cause Assad or his commanders to refrain from using chemical weapons again, said Ken Pollack, a former CIA analyst and former Middle East expert at the National Security Council.
"At the end of the day, the purpose of this response is really going to be about deterrence," Pollack said. But "we have no freakin' clue what's going on inside the regime."
It's unclear who's making decisions and what the Syrian command structure is, he said, and "that makes it really hard to structure a deterrence message or to know how it will be received."
The administration hopes the regime remains unified, "that a group of reasonable people are at the top of the chain of command, and that they read the message the way we want them to," Pollack said.
The problem is the Obama administration hasn't articulated a clear policy for Syria or a clear strategy for how to accomplish it, Pollack said.
The administration has said it is expanding military assistance to the armed opposition, but there's no evidence of that assistance arriving in rebel hands. The administration wants the two sides to negotiate a resolution in Geneva, but the planned conference has been delayed and the list of participants has yet to be agreed upon.
"We have a stated goal of regime change but in a practical matter it's just not clear what the White House is trying to do in Syria," he said. "Nothing the adminisration is thinking about is going to bring about its real goals."
The military action under consideration now comes as United Nations weapons inspectors investigate the site of an attack last week that Syrian activists and medical personnel said killed hundreds with poison gas. Obama had said a year ago that chemical weapons are a red line that would elicit a "game changing" U.S. response.
In June, U.S. officials determined that Assad's forces had used chemical weapons three times already, and announced plans to arm the rebels fighting to topple his regime. Former administration officials, such as then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, have said they fear that a collapse of the Assad regime will allow his considerable arsenal of chemical weapons to fall into the wrong hands, including the Iran-backed terrorist group Hezbollah and al Qaeda-linked militias fighting the regime in Syria.
Badran says how effective the strike by the USA and its allies is depends on the list of targets.
"The question is whether your intervention will have the broader goal of removal of this regime," Badran said. "Based on how they're talking about it - punitive strike related to this issue of chemical weapons - they're defining it very narrowly, as a slap on the wrist, don't do that again. If you do there will be a more serious response."
Meanwhile, a vehicle carrying U.N. chemical weapons investigators came under sniper fire Monday as it was heading toward the site of the alleged chemical attack. One vehicle was disabled, but no injuries were reported. The Syrian government accused the rebels of firing at the team, while a rebel representative said a pro-government militia was behind the attack.
Wassim al-Ahmad, a member of the Moadamiyeh local council, said five U.N. investigators eventually arrived at a makeshift hospital in the suburb where doctors and about 100 people still with symptoms from the alleged chemical attack were brought in to meet with the U.N. team.
"They are late, they came six days late," he told the Associated Press via Skype from Moadamiyeh, referring to the time it took the U.N. team to arrive. "All the people have already been buried."
U.S. naval forces move closer to Syria while Western powers discussed how to respond to the alleged chemical attacks. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that any military intervention in Syria without a mandate from the U.N. would be a grave violation of international law.
While the rebels are already receiving light arms from the West and from Gulf states, the opposition said they still don't want foreign troops on the ground but instead a no-fly zone to help them fight the regime as well as air attacks.
"First, hit military locations to stop missile attacks and air raids, which kill thousands of civilians," said Abu Rami, a 32-year-old anti-Assad activist in Homs. "But I'm against ground intervention in Syria to avoid what happened in Iraq. It is unacceptable for all Syrians."
The alleged chemical assault happened Wednesday on towns in Ghouta, which is east of Damascus.The humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders put the number of dead at more than 350. Syrians in the area claim more than 1,300 people died.
Images and videos have flooded the Internet showing children and adults suffering from symptoms including dilated pupils, increased paleness and shaking, that are consistent with chemical weapons. The images could not be verified by independent sources.
British Foreign Secretary of State William Hague has called for a "strong response" to the use of chemical weapons, and his German counterpart, Guido Westerwelle, said Germany would support any "consequences" of the attack.
But some activists said they were skeptical the international community would take the action needed to strop the violence.
"For two years, we have been hearing about a no-fly zone but it still hasn't happened," said Rami.
His comments were echoed by campaigners at Adopt a Revolution, an organization based in Berlin supporting revolutionary groups in Syria.
"The activists on the ground say, 'we are tired of asking the international community for anything because so far we haven't received anything,'" said Elias Perabo, spokesman for the organization.
"But more and more people are joining the Free Syrian Army to bring the conflict to an end because otherwise they will die."
While the U.N.'s Security Council has discussed the option of intervention in Syria, any decisions on action have been vetoed by Russia and China, who support Assad's regime.
The USA has provided unspecified military aid to Syrian rebels since it concluded chemical weapons had been used by the Syrian regime earlier this year. However, it has refrained from intervening further.
Even if the United States does decide to intervene, analysts said it was unlikely to be to a scale that would change the outcome of the conflict, which has seen more than 100,000 people die since it began in 2011.
"It's possible that we would see some kind of smaller-scale intervention, for example a strike at a missile-launch site or even a strike at the air force capability in Syria but beyond that, there is apparently no international appetite for any kind of ground intervention and I think that is the only thing that would have a chance at changing the outcome of the war," said Anna Boyd, deputy head of MENA forecasting at IHS, defense and security analysts, in London.
Still, members of the Free Syria Army, the group of ex-Syrian army members and others who are the main fighting force against Assad, say if there was any intervention, it would be for the U.S.'s own interests and not because the international community was trying to protect civilians.
"Despite the blockade of weapons, the FSA has made progress in the field and out putting Assad in the position where he needed to use chemical weapons," said Ibrahim Aslan, a spokesman for the FSA's force based near Latakia, in western Syria.
"This means that FSA has forced the U.S. to look at intervening militarily in Syria. But it won't do this to save the Syrians but only out of their interests."
U.S. defense officials told the Associated Press that the Navy had sent a fourth warship armed with ballistic missiles into the eastern Mediterranean Sea but without immediate orders for any missile launch into Syria.
Navy ships are capable of a variety of military actions, including launching Tomahawk cruise missiles as they did against Libya in 2011 as part of an international action that led to the overthrow of the Libyan government.
Contributing: Doug Stanglin from McLean, Va.; Louise Osborne and Victor Kotsev from Berlin; Associated Press