Through two years of Syrian crisis, the Obama administration has cautiously dragged its feet as the United States is further enmeshed in the conflict. That’s a sensible platform at home, with opinion polls showing that Americans don’t think the country has a responsibility to intervene. It has strategic merit, too, given that intervention against Bashar al-Assad is an implicit endorsement of a largely unknown opposition force with radical, sectarian factions.
But the status quo in Syria is breaking down, and Obama’s worst option is to kick the can as the United States inexorably gets dragged deeper into the conflict. It may be politically painful, but it’s time to make a choice: Go all in with a no fly zone — or avoid anything more than diplomatic intervention and humanitarian/non-lethal aid. Here’s why.
Until recently, Obama’s strategy of hesitance and risk aversion was commendable and well executed. As the situation worsened, the United States took minimal, reactionary steps. First, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to put together a formal — and reasonably liberal — Syrian political opposition, but it quickly fragmented because it had no workable ties to the actual rebels doing the actual fighting. Then the United States turned to non-lethal aid for the rebels (including defensive military equipment) as well as supporting Qatar and other countries through intelligence and logistics. Furthermore, in August 2012, Obama drew a “red line” at “chemical weapons moving around or being utilized” by the regime. At the time, it seemed unlikely to come to fruition anytime soon.
A lot has changed in the past few weeks, which have been the most turbulent since the crisis began two years ago. Reports that Assad may have deployed chemical weapons have become too loud to ignore (along with conflicting assertions that the rebels may also have done so). The violence is intensifying, with reports of civilian slaughters at the hands of the government. Israel conducted two direct military strikes against Iranian missile supplies on Syrian soil. The refugee crisis continues to deteriorate, with more than a million people occupying ramshackle camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. Meanwhile, Assad is consolidating his military advantage.
Ugly as the situation was, it’s now much uglier — and faster-moving.
And so it appears the United States is slipping deeper into the fray. This week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel became the first senior official in the administration to say “arming the rebels — that’s an option.” Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, introduced legislation that would provide weapons to the Syrian opposition. The committee’s ranking member, Bob Corker, said, “I think that we will be arming the opposition shortly … We are doing a lot more there on the ground than really is known.”