President Obama needs to act cautiously before deciding to pursue military action against Syria

The buzzword surrounding any action (or inaction, for that matter) in the Syrian civil war is “precedent.”

Last week, President Barack Obama asked for Congressional approval for military action in the country, where several authorities have concluded Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons. Because Obama essentially asked permission to punish Assad, he may have weakened his ability to go forth with military action on his own in the future.

If Congress says no, his calls for action now and in the future will be weakened. He’s made it clear that he wants to uphold the international law that bans chemical warfare, as he should, but he needs the support of both Congress and the international community to move forward.

Even if Congress green lights action in the Middle Eastern country, the United States will be seen as the policing bully of the world once more. The U.S. has established itself as a self-elected enforcer of international laws, and many Americans and international citizens express their disapproval of its global role. Obama could once again put the United States in a poor diplomatic position if he goes in alone.

Chemical warfare should not be tolerated, but exacting military action to combat an already bloody war likely will not work. Seeking peaceful settlements between Syria and the rebel forces is paramount. Should the United States enter the conflict, it must do so with the support of more than just a handful of countries — Britain has already voted to sit this one out.

But if Assad goes unpunished for his illegal use of chemical weapons that killed more than 1,400 people, a dangerous precedent of acceptance of such combat could develop. A staunch defense of the international law must be pursued, but doing so at all costs could be more damaging than the weapons Assad used.

This is a war that has gone unnoticed by countless Americans, and because many of them are new to the conflict, sensitivity is at an all-time high. Public opinion on the issue could be rapid and difficult to change. Obama needs to act as cautiously as possible and continue to wait for an appropriate decision in Syria.