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April 20, 2014

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When to strike: Syria timing is complex for Obama

Preparations for a highly anticipated strike on Syria could lead to an awkward decision on timing.

Few doubt that President Barack Obama is preparing for a U.S.-led military action to retaliate for what the U.S. and its allies say was a deadly chemical weapons attack perpetrated by the Syrian government. But there are few good options for when to attack.

Wednesday, for example, would make for an uncomfortable juxtaposition of themes: On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Obama pays tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. on the 50th anniversary of the nonviolent leader's "I Have a Dream" speech.

Thursday is also problematic. That's when British Prime Minister David Cameron is set to convene an emergency meeting of Parliament, where lawmakers are expected to vote on a motion clearing the way for Britain to respond to the alleged chemical weapons attack.

Days later, on Tuesday, Obama embarks on an overseas trip that will take him away from the White House for most of the week.

Would Obama really want to be running a military operation from Sweden? Or from Russia, which vigorously opposes action against Syria?

Compounding the pressure, some lawmakers and allies are urging Obama to proceed slowly and seek U.N. Security Council approval, while others are imploring the president to act quickly and decisively. After all, Obama's response earlier this year after the U.S. first concluded that Syrian President Bashar Assad had used chemical weapons was criticized as too little, too late.

"The longer you wait, the less meaningful it becomes," said Barry Pavel, a former top national security official in the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.

Lawmakers from both political parties have called on Obama to consult Congress before taking action — a step the White House says is now underway. Obama also is seeking buy-in from Western allies such as Britain and France, and from regional organizations like the 22-member Arab League, which has signaled its interest in justice for victims of the alleged chemical weapons attacks and blamed the Syrian regime.

But those consultations, too, limit the haste with which the U.S. can act without going it alone.

Britain added another wrinkle to the deliberations Wednesday by saying it would seek a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing steps to protect Syrian civilians, although Britain's foreign secretary said the world has a responsibility to act even if the resolution fails; Russia is all but certain to veto it.

Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged against immediate military action, saying U.N. inspectors need four more days to complete their work before evidence can be analyzed and then presented to the Security Council.

Although Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says the U.S. military is in position to strike as soon as Obama gives the order, the administration has yet to release a promised intelligence report formally linking Assad to the attack. That report would provide a key rationale and underpinning for the administration's assertion that a game-changing response was warranted.

The report could be released as early as Wednesday, the same day as Obama's speech marking the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington.

A successful vote Thursday in Britain's Parliament would mark the start of short window that national security experts say could be a less awkward time for Obama to act. But a senior administration official said once Obama decides on what action to take, he won't delay the decision because of outside factors or competing events.

Obama, on Tuesday, will travel to Stockholm for his first visit as president to Sweden. The Northern European nation has claimed a position of neutrality in international conflicts for about 200 years.

Two days later, he heads to St. Petersburg, Russia, for the Group of 20 economic summit with leading foreign counterparts. A major conference intended to focus on wonky issues like tax evasion and monetary policy could easily be subsumed by a military incursion in a Mideast hot spot embroiling the U.S. and potentially other G-20 nations.

What's more, Russia, the host of the summit, is staunchly backing Assad and would be among the most vocal opponents of a military strike in Syria. An American-led attack on Assad's forces while world leaders meet in Russia would be a major embarrassment for the Kremlin, and would deliver yet another blow to shaky relations between Russia and the U.S., already at a low point since the recent U.S. decision to cancel a bilateral meeting between Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"The president has to be prepared for a lot of tension and a high degree of awkwardness," said Nikolas Gvosdev, a national security professor at the U.S. Naval War College.

Despite the messy optics, Obama's foreign travel next week will not be a factor in his decision about when to act, said the administration official, who wasn't authorized to discuss internal deliberations publicly and requested anonymity. The main factor in when an action starts will be how long it takes to get it off the ground once Obama makes the call. An increase in foreign assistance, for example, would take a while to ramp up, while a military action could be ordered right away.

There's precedent for Obama to take military action while outside the U.S. It was in Brazil in 2011 when Obama, on a five-day Latin America swing, authorized limited military action against Libya to counter Moammar Gadhafi's assault on his own people.

U.S. officials say a response most likely would involve sea-launched cruise missile attacks on Syrian military targets. Logistical and military considerations could also play a role in determining when the U.S. and others take action. Military experts and U.S. officials said strikes probably would come during the night, a strategy that could help minimize civilian casualties.

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