The deaths of hundreds in a Damascus suburb have Western leaders talking retribution.  Syrian rebels claim that the Syrian army used chemical weapons against both the rebels and civilians in the area, while the Bashar al-Assad government vehemently denies this.  Today, France’s foreign minister demanded a show of force if the use of chemical weapons can be proven by UN investigators already on the ground — even if the UN finds itself impotent:

France’s foreign minister said Thursday that “a reaction of force must be taken” if Syrian activists’ claims that the government has used chemical weapons outside the capital, Damascus, are confirmed.

France’s foreign minister said Thursday that force must be used reaction of force must be taken” if Syrian activists’ claims that the government has used chemical weapons outside the capital, Damascus, are confirmed. …

Hours after the closed-door meeting, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told CNN affiliate BFMTV that “force” was needed if the allegations were true.

“If the U.N. Security Council cannot do it, decisions will be made otherwise,” Fabius said. But, he said, sending ground troops to Syria is out of question.

Why?  Shooting a cruise missile to hit an army barracks might sound like a big rebuke to Assad, but it’s not going to change the calculus of the war.  In fact, it won’t even change the calculus of the use of chemical weapons, by either side.  A momentary attack with no follow-up will only allow Western leaders to convince themselves that they’ve done something, even though they will have done nothing at all.

Or, perhaps, M. Fabius has more in mind a concerted air campaign designed to force the collapse of the Assad regime.  If that sounds familiar, it’s because France, the UK, and the US combined to do just that in Libya.  How’s that working out for the West?  Even more pertinently, how did it work out for France?  They had to put boots on the ground in Mali to stop an al-Qaeda takeover that was launched from the failed state of Libya, thanks to our decapitation of the Qaddafi regime and its control over the eastern part of the country.

The US has troops ready to get on the ground and actually accomplish something in the effort to stop the use of chemical weapons:

Meanwhile, the U.S. military is getting ready to seize chemical weapons, anywhere in the world. CBS News’ David Martin went on a training mission with the famous Army unit, the 82nd Airborne.

In the early morning hours recently, paratroopers training at Fort Bragg, N.C., conducted an assault on a compound where they’d been told chemical agents are stored. After a decade of fighting insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was a new mission for the soldiers in Col. Mike Fenzel’s brigade. Fenzel told CBS News, “It’s one that we haven’t really addressed over the last 12 years because we have been focused on Afghanistan and Iraq.

It was just an exercise, but Maj. Gen. John Nicholson, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, said it was designed to deal with a real world threat. Nicholson said, “As we look at the evolving situation in Syria and other places around the world, we’re preparing to deal with the reality of securing chemical weapons.”

The 82nd Airborne is kept on constant alert, ready to load and launch 1,000 paratroopers and their gear within 18 hours to anywhere in the world.

Bloomberg makes a good point about the credibility of the US and “red lines”:

Dempsey and the White House are right not to want to own another conflict in the Middle East. Yet failure to react also has repercussions, in Syria and beyond. Why should Iran, or indeedEgypt’s new military rulers, take U.S. commitments and red lines at face value? In addition,Syria looks set for years of continued civil war in which each side is supplied by regional backers, and spillover to Syria’s neighbors is inevitable. It can’t be in U.S. interests for this war to include chemical weapons.

Nor do Dempsey’s justified concerns about the nature of Syria’s opposition preclude action. The U.S. should accompany any response to a proven use of chemical weapons by Assad with a clear statement of its policy goal in Syria: not to topple the regime or ensure victory for part or all of the opposition, but to force the main parties to a cease-fire. There are ways to do this short of a full-scale U.S. intervention, and an internationally endorsed statement of these limited goals would help to guard against mission creep. …

As Dempsey’s letter makes clear, the administration has chosen a noninterventionist policy in Syria. Almost exactly one year ago, Obama said that “a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.”

Today’s allegations, when figured into that calculus, may soon demand a more forceful response. Whether it is cruise missiles against Syria’s air force or another military option, it is a response the president — and the rest of the world — should be prepared to deliver.

Cruise missiles against Syria’s air force won’t do anything to change the calculus in this fight, either.  Assad is using traditional artillery, not air power, against the rebels.  We’ll get back to the red-line credibility argument in a moment, but before we do that, shouldn’t we first find out whether it’s been crossed at all?

Two questions are raised by reports of this attack. The first, of course, is whether it happened the way Syrian rebels said it happened. That is why immediately dispatching the UN team, already in-country, to the affected areas is so vital. If this process worked the way it should, they would be there already. If the Syrian regime denies the UN inspectors permission to visit these areas, well, that is kind of an answer in itself.

The second question is, why would the Assad regime launch its biggest chemical attack on rebels and civilians precisely at the moment when a UN inspection team was parked in Damascus? The answer to that question is easy: Because Assad believes that no one — not the UN, not President Obama, not other Western powers, not the Arab League — will do a damn thing to stop him.

There is a good chance he is correct.

Shooting a cruise missile or two won’t stop Assad, if he actually used chemical weapons in the first place.  It will take a large ground force to disarm both sides, if we don’t just aim for securing the chemical weapons, and even the latter mission will require tens of thousands of troops to execute properly.

Finally, we do have an interest in enforcing red lines when we draw them.  However, we don’t have an interest in making the situation worse than it already is by helping al-Qaeda seize Syria, nor do we help ourselves when our response is nothing short of impotent and irrelevant.  If we are not prepared to go big and go for the long term, then we should stay home — and take care in the future not to speak loudly and carry a twig when dealing with the Middle East.