EDITORIAL: Syrian powder keg calls for American caution

On President Obama's watch, the civil war in Syria has escalated into a humanitarian tragedy and a conflict that could explode into a regional war.

Citing the use of chemical weapons against civilians by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, the president is seeking approval from Congress to launch a limited military strike on Syria. In addition, Obama said Tuesday that "we have a broader strategy that will allow us to upgrade the capabilities" of rebels attempting to overthrow Assad.

Obama's proposed response to events in Syria appear to be winning favor from Republican leaders in the House of Representatives, as both Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor pledged their support for military action. They were among congressional leaders who met with the president in the White House on Tuesday.

The president's justification for hitting Assad's strongholds with missiles is that the Syrian president must be punished for breaking the international ban against chemical warfare. But, as heinous as Assad's apparent use of chemical weapons is, Obama and Congress must also consider a multitude of factors before getting involved in Syria.

One, a few days or weeks of missile strikes will only be symbolic. Assad and his troops appear to have the upper hand against the rebels.

Two, the rebel ranks are filled with Islamists, some of them with close ties to al-Qaida. The United States must not provide arms, training and other support to rebels who haven't been thoroughly vetted by American intelligence.

Three, the Syrian civil war is a proxy war involving Shiites and Sunnis throughout the Middle East -- and it has rekindled Cold War tensions between the West and Russia.

Four, the United Nations estimates that 2 million Syrians have fled their county and another 4 million have been displaced from their homes.

We urge the president and Congress to move cautiously and to continue seeking support from allies such as Great Britain and France for a strategy that ends the suffering of Syrians and eases Middle East tensions.

President Obama's plan of limited missile strikes will accomplish little or nothing.