When you start handing out weapons, you never know where they will end up. A cache of U.S.-supplied arms retaken from insurgents in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004. Source: U.S. Marines via Bloomberg News.
When you start handing out weapons, you never know where they will end up. A cache of U.S.-supplied arms retaken from insurgents in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004. Source: U.S. Marines via Bloomberg News.

Over the past couple of days, I've been getting an earful from friends (yes, I have friends, though mainly I have shifting alliances) who believe that I've been underplaying the importance of President Barack Obama's seeming passivity on Syria.

This passivity has manifested itself in two ways, the argument goes: Obama's refusal to supply weapons and training to Syrian rebels early in the civil war, when the opposition to Bashar al-Assad was not so heavily dominated by jihadists, represents a huge missed opportunity to shape Syria's post-Assad future. And, of course, Obama's refusal to enforce the red line he articulated on the use of chemical weapons suggested to the region and others (including the regime's sponsors in Tehran) that he is a terminal vacillator.

These are serious arguments, and I agree, in particular, that the U.S. is paying a price (a strategic price, and a moral price) for cutting a deal with Assad on chemical weapons. (We've essentially gone into business with this heinous regime in order to help it remove these weapons.) On the first issue, the matter of support for the opposition, I'm sympathetic to the argument as well: There was a time when the opposition was thoroughly Syrian (before the infiltration of thousands of foreign fighters) and mainly non-jihadist. These were people -- not well-trained people, but well-intentioned people -- who could have used our help.

But nothing even remotely guaranteed that the help we could have provided would have tipped the balance in what quickly became a civil war. And there was one good reason to give it a miss. Imagine that, two years ago, the U.S. had provided man-portable air defense systems to groups of vetted and presumably moderate rebels. The Syrian Air Force would have found these Manpads, as they are known, to be lethal against its helicopters. But imagine if these highly portable weapons systems had been stolen, or traded, or sold, to more extreme, al-Qaeda-affiliated units -- or if the same rebels the U.S. had trained on these systems had shifted their allegiance to more radical groups, and had taken these weapons with them. We've already seen non-lethal U.S. aid fall into the hands of people who shouldn't have it; why wouldn't the same have happened with lethal aid? Perhaps a vigorous, American-supported and supplied anti-Assad alliance operating in the opening stages of the revolt would have left no room for the creation of jihadist groupings, except, come on, really? This would have been a huge and dangerous bet.

Right now, the Obama administration is being blamed for abandoning Iraq's Anbar Province to al-Qaeda. Perhaps the U.S. should not have withdrawn so quickly, but on the other hand, look at what is not happening at the moment: American troops are not dying in Iraq. And in the same vein, look at what is not happening across the Middle East: Sunni jihadists are not using American-supplied portable anti-aircraft missile systems against civilian aircraft belonging to the U.S. or its allies. The price Obama would have paid had weapons supplied to moderates fallen into the hands of jihadists would have been enormous. We know that there is a price for inaction, but there is also a price to paid for precipitous action.