President Obama’s move to increase the public flow of arms
to selected Syrian rebels is probably his worst foreign policy decision since taking
office. It is basically the Afghan surge decision redux: long months of
grueling internal deliberation about whether to escalate military commitments resulting in an "Option C" policy
choice which pleases nobody and which few think will work. At least the Afghan surge came with an
Nobody in the administration seems to have any illusions that arming the rebels is likely to work. The argument over arming the FSA has been raging for well over a year, driven by the horrific levels of death and devastation, fears of regional destabilization, the inadequacy of existing policies, concerns about credibility over the ill-conceived chemical weapons red line, and a relentless campaign for intervention led by hawkish media, think
tanks, Congress, and some European and regional allies. Through all of this, Obama (who has not forgotten the lessons of Iraq) has by all accounts opposed deeper intervention, and rightly so, along with much of the Pentagon and many others across the administration. The
most direct cause for the switch likely was Hezbollah’s
open entry in the fighting and fears that the fall of Qusair could lead to a
rapid rebel collapse.
Obama’s move is likely meant as a way to "do something," and perhaps to give
Secretary John Kerry something to work with diplomatically on the way to Geneva II, while deflecting pressure for more aggressive steps. The logic behind the steps has been thoroughly aired by now. The dominant idea is that these arms will help to pressure Assad to the bargaining table, strengthen the "moderate" groups within the opposition
while marginalizing the jihadists in
the rebellion’s ranks, and assert stronger U.S. leadership over the international and regional proxy war. Much of it sounds like magical thinking. History does not suggest that this will work out as planned.
On its own, the decision will have only a marginal impact on the
Syrian war — the real risks lie in what steps might follow when it fails. The significant moves to arm the rebels began last year, with or
without open American participation. Assad’s brutal campaign of
military repression and savage slaughters and the foreign arming of various rebel
groups has long since thoroughly militarized the conflict. The U.S. is modifying its public role in a proxy war in progress, providing more and different forms of support to certain rebel groups, rather than entering into something completely new.
The real problem with Obama’s announcement is that it
shatters one of the primary psychological and political footholds in the grim
effort to prevent the slide down the slippery slope to war. He may have chosen the
arming option in order to block pressure for other, more direct
moves, like a no-fly zone or an air campaign. But instead, as the immediate
push for "robust intervention" makes obvious, the decision will only embolden the relentless campaign for
more and deeper U.S. involvement in the war. The Syrian opposition’s spokesmen
and advocates barely paused to say thank you before immediately beginning to
push for more and heavier weapons, no-fly zones, air campaigns, and so on. The
arming of the rebels may buy a few months, but when it fails to produce either
victory or a breakthrough at the negotiating table the pressure to do more will
build. Capitulating to the pressure this time will make it that much harder to
resist in a few months when the push builds to escalate.
I don’t think anyone in
the administration really has any great confidence that arming the rebels will
end Syria’s civil war or work in any other meaningful way, though many likely feel that it’s worth trying something different after so many months of horrors and want to believe that this will work. Obviously, I am deeply skeptical. I hope I’m wrong, and that against the odds the new policy can make a
difference, and help to resolve the Syrian catastrophe. But more likely it just drags the U.S. further down the road to another disastrous war — one which has just become harder to prevent.