Things are getting ever more complicated in Syria. On Sunday, the New York Times reported that President Obama’s “red line” doctrine was essentially a gaffe — and anonymous administration officials proclaimed that chemical-weapons attacks on civilians aren’t really our problem after all. At the same time, Israel confirmed that for the second time in three days it had hit Damascus with air strikes targeting Iranian-made missiles bound for Hezbollah.
The juxtaposition of Israel’s threat fulfillment with America’s threat parsing would have been bad enough, but Jay Carney made it worse by walking back the walk-back on Monday, telling reporters that the president’s “red line” statement was deliberate, and consistent with what the administration had decided behind closed doors. Mr. Obama is fond of telling our adversaries that he doesn’t bluff. But in this case, his administration bluffed, its bluff was called, it phoned the Times to anonymously confirm that its bluff had been called, and then it raised the pot.
Is this a great way to run a foreign policy? Not hardly. And conservatives are right to again point out that Obama’s diplomatic missteps are inevitably rooted in his failure to match words with action. Except in the case of Syria, the problem isn’t that the president failed to keep his “red line” promise, it’s that he made it in the first place.
Because the sad truth is that, while the Syrian civil war is a tragic affair in a world that overuses the word “tragic,” there are simply no good options for American intervention there.
House Republicans such as Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers (R., Mich.) have called for training and intelligence support for the “rebels” fighting the murderous Assad regime, and the editors of National Review Online agree, writing that “we should give military aid to the more secular elements of the opposition, to strengthen them vis-à-vis the dominant radicals and give ourselves some allies on the ground.”
The murkiness of that proposition is right there in the way it is phrased. In Syria we’re dealing, at best, with a minority of “more secular” rebels drowned out by those “dominant radicals.” Trouble is, we don’t really know much more than that. As recently as last July, national-security officials were telling the Washington Post that, in stark contrast to what it achieved in “Arab Spring” Egypt and Libya, the CIA had been unable to establish a footprint inside Syria and were struggling to figure out the composition of the rebellion. What we do know is that the official unified command structure of the rebel army, created last year at a summit in Turkey, is about two-thirds Muslim Brotherhood, with a sprinkling of Salafists. There are several secular-democratic umbrella groups for the West to work with, but that there are several is part of the problem, and in any event they are composed largely of political dissidents, exiles, and elites with only indirect control of the situation on the ground. By contrast, the business end of the Syrian rebellion is led by a loose confederacy of warlords, arguably the most powerful of whom — one Abu Issa — flies the black flag of al-Qaeda and openly calls for an Islamic state.
There is some consensus among the various strands of the Syrian opposition, and even some agreement with the Assad regime. Unfortunately for us, it is on the subject of Israel. While the Israeli strike on Assad’s weapons caches may have dealt a considerable blow to the regime, it didn’t earn Jerusalem any friends in Aleppo. On the one hand, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces put out a statement “condemn[ing] the Israeli attacks” and implying that their “suspicious” timing helped distract the world from Assad’s crime and could point to his collusion with the Zionists. On the other hand, regime loyalists (including many in Syria’s Christian community) are circulating a photo on Facebook that depicts the rebels’ flag torn to reveal a Star of David lurking beneath.
But suppose for argument’s sake that the armed rebellion included a sizable secular component. Would the U.S. be able to target it with resources? The first round of “Arab Spring” revolutions, along with the Iraq and Afghanistan experiences, form a body of data that suggests that the more control you want over the fallout from a regime change, the more boots you have to have on the ground. It is hard to see how a couple hundred CIA officers, special forces, and contractors operating in secret could be either military game-changers or political kingmakers, especially without extensive arms supplies and air support. Even with arms supplies and air support, you are back to the original dilemma: The United States could certainly bomb Bashar al-Assad out of Damascus, but it would be hard-pressed to bomb into Damascus a moderate, pro-West regime in his place.
Inherent in the “red line” rhetoric, of course, is a human-rights argument for intervention, and it is a good argument. The use of chemical weapons against civilians, without consequence, is both atrocious in its own right and an enabling example for other two-bit strongmen. But here again, the situation on the ground is currently too murky for the U.S. to comfortably intervene. Most troublingly, there is some indication (albeit from a U.N. source) that the rebels themselves have used chemical weapons, raising the question of whom the U.S. should or would seek to “punish” for their human-rights abuse. There may be an argument for targeting chemical-weapons stockpiles — and that is an argument NR’s editors make — but in contrast with pure national-interest-driven strikes like Israel’s, such a campaign could prove open-ended and vulnerable to mission creep.
The only thing we can say with confidence about the Syrian civil war is that it is likely to turn out badly for the West (to say nothing of how it has already turned out for the Syrian dead and displaced). The murderous Alawite regime will either persist, vouchsafing Iran’s most important client state and its middleman to the Shia terrorists of Hezbollah, or a motley crew of jihadists and warlords will flip it into a Sunni state and potential refuge for the Sunni terrorists of al-Qaeda.
It has been said so often of the extended Arab Spring that it is starting to pick up the odor of cliché, but it appears that whoever wins in Syria, we lose.
— Daniel Foster is news editor of National Review Online.