In Syria we face a series of terrible choices. If we do nothing, we further impair our credibility (who will believe any future declaration of a “red line” — will Iran as it builds its bomb?), miss a golden opportunity to diminish Iranian power, and instead potentially grant its key allies a prestige-boosting military victory.
If we intervene by arming or otherwise providing military assistance to the rebels, we will be empowering a motley crew of Sunni jihadists, many with direct ties to al-Qaeda. A few weeks ago the New York Times described rebel-held areas and rebel militias like this:
In Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, rebels aligned with Al Qaeda control the power plant, run the bakeries and head a court that applies Islamic law. Elsewhere, they have seized government oil fields, put employees back to work and now profit from the crude they produce.
Across Syria, rebel-held areas are dotted with Islamic courts staffed by lawyers and clerics, and by fighting brigades led by extremists. Even the Supreme Military Council, the umbrella rebel organization whose formation the West had hoped would sideline radical groups, is stocked with commanders who want to infuse Islamic law into a future Syrian government.
Nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of.
A rebel regime — after, of course, the various warlords sort themselves out — will almost certainly be as hostile to the United States as the regime that preceded it.
And under any scenario, the killing will continue. Arming the rebels may actually prolong the war, since Assad’s forces — enabled by Hezbollah — seem to be making significant progress. Arming the rebels (or imposing no-fly zones) isn’t necessarily ending the conflict, it’s just taking sides.
Was there a brief window when decisive aid to early opponents of Assad’s regime would have engineered the outcome we wanted? There was certainly a much greater chance than exists now, and — at the very least — tens of thousands of lives could have been saved.
A brief survey of President Obama’s key Middle East policy decisions shows a record of disasters. He coudn’t negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with an ostensibly allied Iraqi government, he was slow to back the Iranian Green Revolution, but he jumped with both feet into an Arab Spring that ultimately empowered the Muslim Brotherhood. Now, of course, he’s so all-in with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood that he’s giving them F-16s and waiving human-rights conditions on American Aid. In Syria alone, he was slow to back the right elements of the Syrian rebellion, he’s been caught bluffing about “red lines,” and now we’re staring potential American support for al-Qaeda militias directly in the face. (And if you think that American officials can distinguish between good rebels and bad rebels, I’ve got a Senator McCain/kidnapper photo op to show you.)
That’s not to say that anything is easy in that region, but some choices are more difficult than others. A SOFA for Iraq should have been a top priority. Opposing an Iranian regime that’s been fighting a low-intensity war against the U.S. since 1979 should be a top priority. Opposing Iranian client regimes should have been a top priority. Oh, and diminishing al-Qaeda should always be a priority. Nature abhors a vacuum, and one does not fill that vacuum while “leading from behind.” Jihadists are only too happy to fill the void.
I distinctly recall the condescending mockery of George Bush’s foreign policy, but does anyone think we’re in a stronger position with the Muslim Brotherhood running Egypt, Syria burning (with the only question being which American enemy will prevail), an ambassador assassinated, Iran ever-closer to the bomb, and Russia proving to be more decisive and effective in accomplishing its key foreign-policy objectives?
The Obama administration has made mistakes that can’t be corrected — at least not anytime soon and not without a fearful toll in human lives. The citizens of the world allegedly desperately wanted Barack Obama in 2008. How do they like the world he helped make?