After resisting for more than two years hawkish political pressures to intervene militarily in Syria’s bitter civil war, the Obama administration apparently has decided that now’s the time.
On Friday, news agencies reported that the U.S. will begin supplying small arms and ammunition to the Syrian opposition. When, how much, and precisely to whom remain at this point unspecified.
If the reports are true, we’re about to undertake a new military commitment in a very murky conflict, a commitment strongly opposed by most Americans. Even those urging it most stridently can’t even begin to predict the consequences. It’s worth asking, why now?
The nominal answer, according to the reports, is that the White House has concluded that the Syrian government has indeed used chemical weapons “on a small scale,” thus breaching the no-chemicals “red line” declared by President Obama last August.
Crashed F-16 US fighter
The evidence underwriting that conclusion is equivocal at best, based almost entirely on opposition claims and medical examinations of alleged victims. Even then, U.S. intelligence sources count fewer than 200 possible chemical casualties – this, from what would be a strategically moronic exercise for which no one, including the opposition itself, has been able to suggest a militarily defensible purpose.
Instead, the real incentive for the administration to intervene now probably reflects other much less humanitarian pressures. Perhaps the most immediate are concerns that the military momentum has begun to shift in the Syrian government’s favor.
During the past few weeks, reinforced by fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah, government forces have recaptured the town of Qusair near the Lebanese border, begun clearing the provinces of Homs and Hama, and now threaten Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and the rebellion’s psychological center of gravity.
In a briefing Monday for foreign journalists, Israel’s minister for international affairs, strategy, and intelligence bluntly conceded that Assad “might not just survive but even regain territories” from the rebels. Although his remarks were publicly disavowed by other Israeli officials, many quietly agree.
Still another pressure on the White House is new criticism from nominal presidential allies. Joining Sen. John McCain, by far most vocal promoter of U.S. military intervention, at a “closed to the press” event Tuesday that leaked almost immediately, former President Bill Clinton suggested that Mr. Obama would be “a total fool” to allow public opinion to deter him from intervening on behalf of the rebels.
If he refused to act because “there was a poll in the morning paper that said 80 percent of [Americans] were against it,” he reportedly declared, “[he’d] look like a total wuss” – this, from the fellow who, when he was on the hot seat, allegedly consulted public opinion polls before deciding what to eat for breakfast.
Finally, some Middle East allies – especially Sunni Arab states such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates that support the largely Sunni opposition – complain that American failure to intervene in support of the rebels risks conceding dominant regional influence to Russia and Shi’ite Iran, Assad’s strongest supporters.
Indeed, unsurprisingly, the Russian reaction to Thursday’s announcement was prompt and explicit. Warned Yuri Ushakov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s chief foreign policy adviser, U.S. military aid to the rebels would only make it more difficult to reach the durable political settlement to which the U.S. claims to be committed.
The real question, of course, is what comes next. As a practical matter, handing the rebels small arms won’t materially improve their military prospects. That would require endowing them with the very sort of weapons – surface-to-air missiles, for example – that we (and the Israelis) least desire to see ending up in the hands of potentially hostile Islamists.
Still less attractive – even, according to some recent reports, to U.S. allies Britain and France, who have urged giving arms to the opposition – are the sorts of direct military action that McCain and his acolytes continue to demand: destruction of Syria’s air force, establishment of a no-fly-zone and safe bases for rebel forces in Syria, and air strikes against Assad’s chemical stocks, assuming that they could reliably be located and targeted in the first place.
In short, the net effect of Thursday’s decision, if indeed one has been made, will be to invest U.S. resources and reputation in an increasingly sectarian contest for purposes that are totally unclear, while exerting virtually no effective influence on its outcome.
There scarcely could be a better definition of strategic fecklessness. Unless, of course, our real agenda is simply to keep the Syrian pot boiling, in the belief that miring Russia, Iran, and even Hezbollah in a proxy war in Syria beats freeing them to engage in even more troublesome adventures elsewhere.
In which case our claim to be motivated solely by humanitarian concern, far from proving us feckless, instead merely would prove us hypocritical. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time.