White House officials recently made a low-key announcement that President Obama has authorized the transfer of arms to Syria’s rebels. This 180-degree shift in the administration’s policy, after two years of hand-wringing and diplomatic posturing, was announced by an obscure National Security Council official rather than the president.
Obama has distanced himself from the Syrian crisis for several reasons. The bloodbath in Syria, which has claimed more than 90,000 lives, contradicts his narrative that the tide of war is receding in the Middle East. Moreover, the growing strength of al-Qaida’s Syrian franchise refutes his claim that the war on terrorism has ended. The president also knows that direct U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war would be unpopular at home and politically risky.
But perhaps his best reason for lying low is that his administration lacks a coherent strategic plan for dealing with the crisis. The announcement of arms aid to the rebels was linked to the administration’s belated recognition that Syria’s Assad regime has used chemical weapons on its own people. But arms aid alone will not enforce the administration’s red line against the use of chemical weapons, or adequately punish the Assad regime for crossing that red line.
Once again, Obama has overpromised and undelivered on Syria policy. From the beginning, his administration has been behind the curve in addressing the growing crisis, in part because of the ideological baggage that it carried into office. It quickly abandoned the Bush administration’s hard line against the Assad regime and proclaimed that diplomatic engagement was a cure-all for dealing with hostile regimes in Damascus and Tehran. It mistakenly viewed Assad as a “reformer” (in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s words) who should be courted diplomatically.
When peaceful protesters were mowed down by Assad’s thugs in March 2011, the administration appealed to Assad to compromise with the pro-democracy demonstrators, a horrible misreading of the nature of the regime. Obama called for Assad to step down in August 2011, but there was little follow-through when the Syrian dictator defiantly shrugged off that advice.
The administration’s insistence on multilateralism, almost as an end in itself, led it to outsource policy on Syria to the United Nations, where Russia and China exercised their veto power to block effective action.
While the administration offered humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees and later nonlethal aid for the Syrian opposition, it balked at providing arms. Obama last year overruled the advice of CIA Director David Petraeus, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Clinton and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, to provide arms aid.
Now the arms aid offered may amount to “too little, too late.” While the administration engaged in wishful thinking about brokering an illusory political settlement, Russia and Iran showered the Assad regime with unstinting arms supplies and economic aid. Iran also deployed Revolutionary Guards as advisers and ordered thousands of Hezbollah militiamen from Lebanon to join the fighting.
Belated U.S. aid now will not decisively shift the balance of power within Syria. It appears to be more about saving face than about seriously addressing the crisis.
The Obama administration is right to rule out the use of U.S. ground troops. But there also are reports that the administration may be mulling over imposing a no-fly zone. Doing so would give the illusion of decisive action while entangling the United States in an open-ended expensive commitment that could become a slippery slope leading to more extensive, costly and risky military involvement.
A no-fly zone also would do little to halt most of the killing, which is done on the ground. In Libya, the United States and its allies went beyond a no-fly zone to attack Moammar Gadhafi’s forces on the ground. But those forces were poorly equipped, poorly trained and fighting in the desert. Syria’s army is much better equipped, better protected against air attacks, and is fighting in the cities, where attacking them also would involve civilian casualties.
Imposing a no-fly zone in Syria would be much more difficult, more costly and more risky. Moreover, it would assist al-Qaida and other Islamist extremists to consolidate their gains, unless the balance of power within the loose opposition coalition is tilted against them. And thanks to the administration’s lead-from-behind mindset, it is very late in the game to do that.