From the start of the Syrian civil war, the U.S. and its allies have had a choice between three relatively coherent responses. They are — or rather they were — as follows:
1. Strict “hands off” neutrality camouflaged by such diplomatic fatigues as offers of mediation, willingness to finance an eventual U.N. peacekeeping force, support for an arms embargo, urging other powers to adopt a similar attitude, shuttle diplomacy, etc., etc.
2. Offering de facto support for the Syrian government as the entity most likely to maintain a stable national unity (albeit a repressive one) and to protect national minorities, in return both for detaching Syria from its alliances with Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia (henceforth IHR) and for limiting Syrian support for external intervention (at least to its “traditional” stamping-ground of Lebanon).
3. Diplomatic and military support for the Syrian rebels in order to replace the Assad regime; to weaken its protectors and allies, IHR again; and to strengthen the pro-Western elements in the rebel coalition against the jihadists by the judicious use of military patronage.
Each of these policies had risks and benefits. Support for the rebels, if successful, would inflict a serious strategic defeat on IHR but risk installing a jihadist regime in Damascus. Support for the government might entice Syria towards a more pro-Western alignment but at the moral cost of allying with and entrenching a repressive regime. And strict neutrality — though seemingly the most prudent option — would actually risk handing a strategic victory to IHR over such U.S. allies as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states without a fight. That said, there was at least a logical clarity to each of these approaches.
Unfortunately, our actual policy until last weekend was an incoherent blend of Option 3 and Option 1. We had offered diplomatic support to the rebels and winked at the supply of arms to them by Sunni Muslim states under the theatrical cover of diplomatic initiatives aimed at a political compromise involving the departure of Assad. But we never supplied the rebels with the advanced weapons that would both guarantee them victory and enable the U.S. to shape the victorious coalition. At various points in the last two years such a level of assistance may well have defeated Assad and installed a new government in Damascus. We held back because we believed that Assad was losing anyway and that Russia would cooperate in crafting a new and balanced regime. That optimism now looks utterly feckless.
As both John Bolton, in a column, and James Sherr, in the Moscow Times, pointed out this week, Vladimir Putin has simply gulled a series of U.S. officials — President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and now Secretary John Kerry — into believing that Moscow and Washington have common objectives in Syria. Yet it was never sensible to think that Putin would betray his sole remaining Arab ally. Putin made this humiliatingly clear to the president at the Northern Ireland G8 summit. The result of America’s having voluntarily swallowed such nonsense is that Assad now seems to be closing in on a victory. If that is so, the regional strategic balance will have shifted towards his allies, IHR, and against America’s allies, including Israel.
Thus, Obama decided a week ago that the U.S. would supply the Syrian rebels with arms. The strategic risk in the region, incidentally, was the reason for this tilt. The discovery that Assad had used chemical weapons gave some moral underpinning to U.S. intervention, but it neither could nor should be the main justification for it. Despite former president Bill Clinton’s huffing and puffing, the U.S. is under no obligation to enforce the international community’s moral taboos (however justified) on combatants in brutish civil wars. The main effect of treaties that impose such an obligation is that crimes that supposedly trigger intervention will be roundly denied unless governments have other reasons for getting involved — as indeed President Clinton’s coldly prudent behavior over Rwanda’s genocide demonstrated.
So the test that intervention must meet here is a strategic one: Will it alter the outcome of the Syrian civil war and the strategic balance in the Middle East in ways favorable to Washington? In the abstract, it might. The defeat and departure of Assad — and the replacement of his regime by an anti-Iranian one with no loyalty to Moscow — would be a major prize. Even Assad’s departure in a compromise that produced a broad national-unity government with links to all external players would at least avoid a massive strategic reverse. But what level of force is Washington prepared to commit to the struggle to achieve such results? How large an intervention would U.S. public opinion support? And for how long would that support stay solid?
President Obama seems to have reached the conclusions that American voters will go no further than supplying lighter and less advanced weaponry to the rebels. Others — Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, and former president Clinton — argue that they would support a higher level of intervention once the president (any president, apparently) ordered it. But experience suggests that even if that were so, public support would evaporate unless the rebels looked like scoring a victory in reasonable time. And that would be a plausible outcome only if U.S. intervention were bold and substantial — for instance, providing the rebels with advanced weapons capable of bringing down helicopters and destroying tanks, and giving them effective air support. Such a strategy, supported by high levels of U.S. involvement, changed the game in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s after a similar period of inertia in the face of barbarism. But there seems little or no prospect of a similar boldness today. And the time is late.
What we face, therefore, is the near-inevitability of a serious strategic defeat for our allies in the Middle East. That would be the second-worst outcome at this point. The worst outcome would be a serious strategic defeat for our Middle Eastern allies and for the U.S. itself — as a result of our getting involved feebly and ineffectively in the conflict. Providing light weapons to the rebels is a good definition of a policy for such a defeat — one aggravated by the likelihood that these weapons cannot significantly change the nature of the rebel coalition at this stage and might fall into the hands of jihadists who after their Syrian defeat will use them elsewhere, perhaps against us.
We have got into this mess by pursuing half-measures and self-contradictory policies. The lesson should be clear: Stop doing this. If you seriously intend to win, hit hard and often; if you don’t, stay out.
— John O’Sullivan is an editor-at-large of National Review.