Missing the Middle East Boat

Obama dawdled, and now it's too late to arm the rebels.

For the better part of this past year, I have argued on these pages that the administration needed to arm the moderate rebels of the Free Syrian Army. Recent and past history points to the fact that radicals usually overwhelm moderates, later if not sooner. But I felt that it was crucial to do everything possible to remove Bashar al-Assad and prevent the al-Nusra Front from elbowing the moderates out of the opposition picture. When I and many others called for arming the rebels, al-Nusra did not yet have the upper hand within the opposition, Hezbollah had not thrown all its weight behind Assad, and Assad’s own forces were on the defensive.

The administration sat on its hands for months, indeed for the better part of the past two years. It argued that it could not arm the rebels because it was not clear who would actually be receiving the arms, as well as where and against whom they might ultimately be employed. Of course, the administration knew exactly to whom it was providing nonlethal aid; it was somehow more difficult to discriminate between the “good guys” and “bad guys” when lethal assistance was involved.

The president finally drew a “red line” when he stated that the United States would take active steps to intervene in the Syrian civil war should the Assad regime employ chemical weapons. In April 2013, the Israelis asserted that chemical weapons had been used. The president did nothing; the United States was still studying the evidence. In late May the British and the Turks made the same assertion. Again, the president did nothing; the United States had not completed its study of the evidence. On June 4, the French added their voices to those who accused Assad of using chemical weapons. The administration stalled again; its studies were not yet complete.

Finally, on June 14, President Obama declared that Assad had crossed the red line. The Israelis, Turks, British and French were right after all. Assad had used chemical weapons to kill as many as one hundred and fifty people. The fact that he had already killed nearly one hundred thousand people with conventional weapons was of far less consequence. The United States would now arm the moderate rebels.

The timing of the president’s announcement was perhaps more than a bit suspect. A spokesman acknowledged that some time had already passed since the administration had concluded that the Assad regime was employing chemical weapons. Then what prompted the Friday announcement? No doubt one reason was to tilt the weekend news cycle—and the Sunday talk shows—toward a discussion of the president’s decision. But another, perhaps more important reason was to deflect the media from their preoccupation with the mounting list of scandals that are afflicting the administration, of which the fallout from the Snowden leak is only the most recent. The debate over what happened at Benghazi has not subsided, while the outcry over IRS discrimination against conservative nonprofits and the monitoring of thousands of Associated Press phone calls continues apace. What better way to draw the notoriously short attention span of the public and the media away from these uncomfortable developments than to turn the focus on Syria?

The administration has not exactly said when, and with what, it will arm the rebels. Press reports indicate that Washington’s plodding bureaucracy has furnished only half of the nonlethal aid that the administration promised the rebels months ago. In the meantime, with Assad’s victory over rebels at the strategic town of Qusayr, a win for him due to the contribution of Hezbollah fighters, the course of the war may have shifted in the dictator’s favor.

For their part, the Sunni radicals continue to grow stronger, thanks to Qatari and Turkish assistance. They also appear to have been killing Free Syrian Army officers. We are witnessing the twenty-first century Sunni Syrian version of French Girondists and Jacobins, and you know who came out on top in that revolution.

At this stage, it probably no longer makes much sense to arm the moderates. Their prospects for victory are minimal. A no-fly zone might warm the heart of humanitarians, but it will not change the tide of battle on the ground in favor of the moderates. Air defense systems by themselves cannot support a no-fly zone. Aircraft would be required. Yet a no-fly zone along the lines of that which was employed in Libya could provoke a nasty response if, as almost inevitably would be the case in the course of establishing the zone, air-defense sites would have to be destroyed. There is no comparison between the Libyan military and Assad’s forces; the latter are made of much tougher stuff. And if there happen to be Russians manning some of the air defense sites, or merely present at them, an attack could result in Russian deaths, prompting a powerful reaction from the Kremlin.

Finally, the administration has to explain how it thinks a peace conference will further its objective of creating a stable Syria ruled by someone other than Assad. The Syrian president has every incentive, as once did the North Vietnamese, to attend the conference and talk incessantly, while he continues to reclaim territory and add to the death toll of his own citizens. And who will represent the opposition? If the Islamists attend, they will assure themselves of a major role in Syria’s future. If they do not attend, the conference will be a sham.

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