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Obama’s Decision to Arm Syria’s Rebels

The low-key announcement about arming Syrian rebels was made not by the president, but by Deputy National Security Adviser Benjamin J. Rhodes. (Photo: washingtonpost.com)

The low-key announcement about arming Syrian rebels was made not by the president, but by Deputy National Security Adviser Benjamin J. Rhodes. (Photo: washingtonpost.com)

More than two years after the beginning of the Syrian rebellion, the Obama administration reported on Thursday, June 13, that it would begin supplying small arms and ammunition to rebels fighting the Syrian government. Proposals for more direct intervention, such as the establishment of a no-fly zone, were rejected, at least for the time being. Speculation on a policy change had already been spurred by the recent appointment of Susan E. Rice to be national security adviser and the nomination of Samantha Power to take Rice’s place as UN ambassador. Rice and Power were both instrumental in convincing President Obama to intervene in the Libyan conflict in 2011. Both are widely seen as advocates of “humanitarian intervention,” that is, military intervention for humanitarian purposes, such as ending violence. Neither, however, has publicly advocated intervention in Syria. Moreover, the change, although announced, has not actually taken place. Last year, we now know, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and CIA Director David Petraeus advocated arming the rebels. President Obama, however, supported by Vice President Joe Biden, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, and possibly Ambassador Rice, rejected the proposal. Clinton, Panetta, and Petraeus subsequently left their posts. The larger bureaucratic players reportedly remained just as divided as before between those who saw Syria as a humanitarian emergency and those who saw in it a senseless quagmire to be avoided.

John Kerry, the new secretary of state, attempted this year to deflect energies onto the diplomatic track. He proposed that the United States and Russia invite the various Syrian factions to Geneva for a peace conference. It is unclear whether he had high hopes for diplomacy or merely believed that it was important to be seen testing all peaceful options. The initiative, however, stalled before it got going, with the Syrian factions—especially the rebels—reluctant to attend. A negotiated settlement remains unlikely as long as either side believes it is winning on the ground. In the meantime the State Department has become a stronghold for those who advocate arming the rebels, while the Pentagon has consistently highlighted the difficulties involved.

Has anything changed in Syria itself that might have effected the reassessment in Washington? Indeed, several features have evolved. There have been multiple reports since March of gas attacks by government troops. In August 2012 Obama had said that the use of chemical weapons, such as nerve gas, would be a “game changer”—a term he was careful not to define. Would the use of chemical weapons signify an important change in circumstances when, to date, 93,000 have been killed by conventional means? It is true that their use would violate international agreements, and they do carry the potential for deaths on a massive scale. Yet I do not believe that this was the reasoning behind Obama’s statement of last summer. My suspicion (and this is admittedly speculation) is that after more than a decade of pointless and inconclusive wars in the Middle East, and in view of substantial domestic needs, Obama was simply reluctant to involve the country in another protracted conflict, a position with which I can sympathize. Under some pressure to take a stand on the Syrian issue in the summer of 2012, he drew a “red line”—the use of chemical weapons—that he assumed Assad would be smart enough not to violate. Now that seems to have backfired. The initial reports of chemical weapons use, however, were ambiguous. Physiological evidence existed, but it was limited to samples of just two or three people who had been exposed to sarin, a potent nerve gas, and the chain of custody was questionable. It is also puzzling that the Syrian regime would risk possible retaliation by using nerve gas in limited and indecisive ways at a time when its military position was not especially desperate.

The last thing the United States needs is to start a second war in a decade justified by weapons of mass destruction that turn out not to exist. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have argued that we would lose our credibility, our ability to deter Iran and North Korea, if we did not follow through on our threats, but if we followed through without our condition actually having been violated, then Iran and North Korea would probably conclude that our threats are merely excuses to carry out already-planned attacks and they would see even more reason to continue their nuclear programs in order to deter us. Nevertheless, on June 13, the administration declared that it was now convinced that the attacks had occurred and that the Assad regime was responsible, even though the evidence does not appear to have changed very much. The physical evidence has grown to perhaps four or six individuals, but the chain of custody has still not been established. Added to that were signals intercepts, overhead surveillance, and human intelligence (although the last presumably comes from rebels with an interest in convincing the United States to supply arms). The scale of the alleged chemical attacks remains miniscule, reportedly 100–150 deaths out of 93,000, nothing that would affect the outcome of the war. What changed, it seems, was less the evidence than the administration’s willingness to involve itself in Syria.

Another change has been a series of recent Syrian government advances on the ground, a possible shift in the course of the conventional war (although some analysts believe that the basic stalemate persists). One major advance was the government victory at Qusayr, a town strategically located between Damascus and the ethnic Alawite homeland on the Mediterranean coast. The impact of the city’s capture was heightened by Hezbollah’s role in it, and by the presumed role of Iran behind Hezbollah. Syrian troops, Hezbollah fighters, and Alawite militiamen then turned northward toward rebel-held Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. Many in Washington began to fear that the rebellion was on the verge of collapse and that Iran would emerge as the winner in a broader geopolitical chess game. For those policy makers, no doubt, the fall of Qusayr and the pending assault on Aleppo hearkened back to the anticipated fall of Benghazi, Libya, in March 2011, the precipitating event—or the precipitating anticipated event—that led to U.S. and NATO intervention in that country. The fall of the rebel stronghold at Benghazi would likely have led to massive deaths among civilians and shut the window of opportunity for any intervention at all. Today some may fear that the fall of Aleppo would essentially end the war on Assad’s terms. This may be what pressed the administration to made an immediate decision.

Apart from the fighting in Aleppo, the administration was pressured by the prospect of the Syrian war spreading to other countries in the region. Syria’s long-standing involvement in Lebanon has given every faction in that country a stake in the outcome, either for or against Assad. Hezbollah has actively entered the battle on Assad’s side, Syrian rebels have retaliated with artillery fire into Hezbollah strongholds across the border, and sectarian clashes have erupted between pro- and anti-Assad factions within Lebanon. Iraqi volunteers have come to Syria to fight—Shiah supporting the government and Sunni with the rebels—while sectarian turmoil has also revived in that country. The Shiah-dominated Iraqi government, although supported by the United States, has always been sympathetic to Iran and permits Iranian aircraft to use Iraqi airspace to send supplies to Syria. The Sunni Islamist al-Qaeda in Iraq, once quiescent, reemerged, spurred the formation of the rebel al-Nusra Front in Syria, and then announced its formal merger with that group. (Differences over the merger, or over the tactical wisdom of its public announcement, have apparently produced a split within al-Nusra.) Additional pressure came from U.S. friends and allies in the region that interpreted the administration’s caution as disinterest and were beginning to freeze it out of their own decision making regarding Syria.

Another changed circumstance is a permissive one. Since last fall the administration has helped some of the numerous Syrian rebels organize a political umbrella group, the Syrian National Coalition, and a military command, the Supreme Military Council (SMC). These new bodies exclude extremist Islamist militias, such as the al-Nusra Front. In the process U.S. officials have gotten to know the rebels somewhat better. Presumably, to the extent that these bodies function, they now constitute an address to which assistance can be sent. The United States wants all countries contributing military assistance to do so through the SMC in order to bolster that body’s effectiveness and legitimacy. (It is believed that Qatar, in particular, has until now funneled its aid to Islamists outside the SMC.) According to the Washington Post, U.S. intelligence estimates that extremists account for only 10 percent of rebel forces but constitute the most effective part. Arming the rebels through the SMC is seen as an opportunity to strengthen moderate elements within the rebel movement.

Pressure for intervention within the larger U.S. political system has not been particularly great, apart from the advocacy by Senators McCain and Graham. They, however, remain enthusiastic; they have been joined by Democratic senators Bob Casey and Bob Menendez, and most recently by Bill Clinton. McCain has argued that the need to intervene will manifest itself eventually and that the task will be harder the later it occurs. He and like-minded policy makers also worry that the administration’s caution reflects a broader abdication of leadership in world affairs. These pleadings may play on the president’s sense of guilt or his concern about his legacy. Yet as soon as McCain learned of the administration’s decision to arm the rebels, something he had been advocating, he asserted that supplying arms was no longer enough. Action such as air strikes, he said, had to be taken to change the situation on the ground. Such escalating arguments could serve to remind the administration that committing itself in a small way now is likely to lead to demands for greater commitments if the military situation deteriorates further. Indeed, a limited supply of small arms to the rebels is unlikely to be effective if it should occur to Assad’s backers to increase his supplies as well, or if Assad should decide to employ his chemical weapons fully, or if he should attack Israel, drawing it into the war and dividing the opposition. If the U.S. supplies do not include antitank and antiaircraft weapons, they may be inadequate from the beginning.

The administration faces virtually no pressure for intervention from the American public. Among the general public, support for intervention in Syria has actually declined as the violence has increased, although the large-scale Syrian use of chemical weapons could change that temporarily. Public support for foreign wars tends to fade, especially in cases of humanitarian intervention, where U.S. national interests are not clearly involved. President Obama knows from firsthand experience how quickly attitudes can change (or how different attitudes can be driven to the surface). As an unnamed senior White House official told Dexter Filkins:

The pressures on us to intervene now are enormous. . . . But the day after you do something, the pressures go in the other direction. In Libya, the day after we intervened, all the pressure went from “Why aren’t you intervening?” to “What did you just do?”

Filkins also cites Princeton political scientist Gary J. Bass, who notes that there is no “upside” politically when it comes to humanitarian intervention. If you succeed in preventing a catastrophe, people will conclude that the threat was never real. Moreover, the successes will pale in the face of any costs. Obama may have prevented a slaughter in Benghazi in 2011, but people today associate Benghazi only with the four Americans killed in an unrelated incident in 2012. Bass notes that Bill Clinton stood by and did nothing while 800,000 people were massacred in Rwanda, but it was the 18 American soldiers who died in Somalia that cost Clinton politically.

Thus the pressures on the administration were, and continue to be, a mixed bag. The Pentagon does not favor intervention, and neither does the public. On the other hand, there are some ambiguous signs of limited chemical weapons use, the possibility of a geopolitical win for Iran, the threat of a wider regional war, and the uncomfortable feeling of guilt for doing nothing. The policy selected, transfers of arms and ammunition to certain rebel movements, appears to be designed to meet these cross-pressures by giving the appearance of doing something while minimizing the cost and risk to the United States. It has little prospect of improving the situation, but then no option offered (including the option of doing nothing) is likely to improve the situation.

A real danger is that of escalating commitments that eventually draw the United States deeper and more directly into a new morass. So far, Obama has been pretty effective at avoiding quagmires, but this one could be difficult. We have already seen him make a vague commitment to get rid of Assad and a somewhat more specific commitment to react to the use of chemical weapons, which got us to where we are now. (Of course, it is possible that we would have ended up here even without those commitments having been made.) The current step in the escalation appears to tie us more closely to the fate of the rebels, or at least of specific rebel factions. What happens next? What do we do if those rebels are threatened with near-term annihilation? Do we intervene directly to save them? What will we do if Iran intervenes? If the rebels win, are we obliged to support our rebels in a subsequent civil war between secular and Islamist militias? Do we help suppress a future Alawite liberation army with realistic fears of Sunni retribution? Do we agree to a negotiated settlement that promises to end the killing but legitimizes a role for Iran in postwar Syria? A key question, of course, is why we should expect U.S. participation to lead to peace and stability when we have left Iraq and Afghanistan as basically broken and violent countries.

Many commentators have criticized the administration for not having any plan at all. To be fair, this may not be entirely true. The administration apparently hopes to rebalance the opposing forces on the battlefield long enough to entice both sides to the negotiating table to settle on a post-Assad transitional government. That is not much of a plan. It is vague, it leaves many questions unanswered, it runs plentiful risks, and the prospects for success are slim, but on the other hand, it is more than most of the critics have to offer. We shall be watching to see how it turns out.