Politics & Policy

A Half-Measure in Syria

Free Syrian Army sniper in Aleppo, October, 2012.
On support for the Syrian rebels, Obama decides to do something — i.e., as little as possible.

The White House has announced that the president has authorized the “expansion of . . . assistance to the Supreme Military Council (SMC),” one of several military arms of the Syrian rebellion. This after a month of careful reflection on whether the Assad regime used chemical weapons and thus crossed the president’s “red line,” which, in fact, turned out to be more of a pinkish squiggle.

All indications are that this “expansion of assistance” will take shape as shipments of light weapons — rifles and other small arms.

#ad#There is little upside to this move. The Syrian rebels are already flush with Kalashnikovs (along with IEDs, the official weapon of global insurgency), and the Syrian regime has adapted to their guerrilla ambush tactics by holing up in well-defended fortresses dotting the countryside where the rebels are concentrated. As our own soldiers know well from Iraq and Afghanistan, you can’t defeat an insurgency from inside a holdfast. But neither can the insurgents dislodge the Syrian regime without the heavy weapons — anti-armor and anti-aircraft systems especially — that they really want from America.

The downside of arms shipments is obvious, and huge. The U.S. will no doubt try to restrict weapons shipments to the “more secular” or “more moderate” elements among the rebels, but that will certainly prove impossible, as it will require penetrating not just the fog of war but the fog of Islamism that has covered the entire Arab Spring. Some, perhaps most, of the arms will make their way to unfriendlies, which in some cases are directly aligned with al-Qaeda. Others will make their way across Syria’s borders and into the hands of terrorists in Iraq, or Lebanon, or Palestine.

A sound argument can be made for staying out of Syria altogether (except, perhaps, to provide medical and other non-lethal assistance). The one-sentence version is that no “good guys” and no national-security interest are to be found there. There is also an argument for a large-scale American intervention that would take the form of an air campaign coupled with covert action on the ground, in (limited) coordination with rebel elements, and with the explicit goal of destroying the ability of the Assad regime to wage war. The one-sentence version is that the chance to weaken Iran in the region is greater than the risk that the successor regime in Syria will be Sunni Islamist. I don’t really buy this argument, but it’s not absurd.

But no argument exists for the marginalism the Obama administration favors — or, at least, the only argument is the cynical one suggested by my colleague Pat Brennan:

This president’s foreign policy seems to be oriented around not letting it get in the way of his domestic and political priorities — more action in Syria will require expending political capital, risking mistakes, angering some of his domestic allies and some of his opponents, too, but there are also costs to inaction that starts to look impotent (and to letting Assad gain the upper hand again). So the administration tries to make it look like they’re doing something, without doing anything.

Pat’s hypothesis is backed up by evidence that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime affects Americans’ opinions about U.S. intervention in Syria. Since the president’s approval ratings would suffer under a policy of non-intervention in Syria, so would his ability to achieve his domestic priorities. His decision to increase lethal assistance to the rebels — but only in the form of small arms — is a decision to do as little as possible while being seen to do something.

As in Libya and Egypt, the administration’s refusal to do more — its “leading from behind” — is about its not wanting to have its fingerprints on the outcome in Syria. That it could avoid all accountability in that regard was improbable before President Obama made the “red line” declaration. After the declaration, avoiding all accountability is impossible.

There are no good options in Syria, and that’s not entirely President Obama’s fault. But as president, he still has his pick of bad options: He could have done nothing, which would have meant going back on his word and looking weak in the region. At least that would have been honest. He could have gone in hard, which would have meant the repudiation of five years of foreign policy. But at least that would have been definitive. Instead he seems poised to split the difference, to ship some weapons and hope that, if they end up in the wrong hands, it will be on somebody else’s watch. Hey, at least that’s easy.

— Daniel Foster is news editor of National Review Online.

Daniel Foster — Daniel Foster has been news editor of National Review Online since 2009, and was a web site editor until 2012. His work has appeared in The American Spectator, The American ...

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