By now it’s clear that the U.S.’s new policy toward Syria -- we use the word “new” advisedly -- remains unclear. The question is what President Barack Obama is willing to do about it.
A month ago, the administration announced it would begin training and arming opposition fighters in Syria. Now it emerges that this aid hasn’t yet hit the ground, and when it does, it will involve only small arms in uncertain quantities.
What exactly is the administration’s policy here? If the goal is to roll back the Hezbollah and Iranian forces that have helped turn the tide in favor of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war, then such a small-scale move won’t make the difference. Nor will it stop the bloodshed, enable humanitarian aid to reach civilians, force the two sides to negotiate, or remove Assad -- all of which are the U.S.’s stated goals.
Perhaps the administration’s strategy is a more Machiavellian attempt to bleed Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps dry on the battlefields of Qusair, Homs and Aleppo. If so, again, a slow trickle of small arms won’t achieve the goal.
Maybe the effort makes sense as part of a continued policy of avoiding any entanglement in Syria while at the same time showing that the U.S. president will enforce any red line he sets out -- in Syria’s case, the use of chemical weapons; in Iran’s, the development of nuclear ones. But such a weak response to the Syrian regime’s alleged use of sarin gas is more likely to have the opposite effect: reassuring al-Assad -- and Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- that the U.S. has no interest in risking further blood or treasure in the Middle East.
The most convincing explanation of Obama’s Syria policy is that it is designed simply to play for time in a vexed, desperate situation -- arming the rebels just enough to assuage critics in Congress but not enough to run the risk of pouring fuel on the fire.
In fairness to Obama, all the options in Syria are terrible. Arming and training the Free Syrian Army has a smaller chance of success today than when Obama’s security officials proposed the policy last year, and has become less appealing. Radical Islamists, including butchers who behead their opponents on camera, were marginal to the conflict a year ago. Now they are central to it. Does anyone really want to help them win, or take the risk that they acquire sophisticated U.S. weapons?
If the U.S. strategy in Syria is to avoid getting involved, however, then Obama should say so. He should explain why the U.S. doesn’t have enough at stake in Syria to intervene, what outcomes he is willing to accept, and why Iran is an entirely different case in which the red line really is red.
On Syria’s current trajectory, two outcomes are increasingly likely. One is that Assad retains power and reasserts control over Syria. Leaving aside the huge number of atrocities that were and continue to be committed by his regime, including the slaughter of unarmed protesters who were asking for the right to vote, this result is perfectly acceptable. Just ask the Russians.
The other currently plausible outcome is that the country fractures and becomes a failed state, parts of which would be controlled by al-Qaeda affiliates such as the al-Nusra Front. In this case, these groups could easily end up with sophisticated weapons from Syria’s stocks of chemical, anti-aircraft and other weapons.
Neither of these scenarios serves U.S. interests or values. Thus Obama’s dilemma in Syria: Neither complete neglect nor complete involvement is desirable or even possible. Whatever the U.S.’s policy is, it will be unsatisfying and situational.
There will come a day when it is too late to organize and arm the Free Syrian Army. For now, a genuine effort to tip the balance on the battlefield and drive Assad to the negotiating table remains available -- if tipping the balance is not a professed goal but an actual one.
To contact the Bloomberg View editorial board: email@example.com.