Obama's Confusing Syria Calculus

The new policy creates more questions than answers.

There’s something morally perplexing about President Obama’s stance on the war in Syria. It’s not any clearer in its strategic logic.

The president watched—that is essentially what he has done, all the verbiage aside—while Bashar al-Assad’s army and the paramilitary shabiha, most recently joined by Hezbollah fighters, have some slaughtered some 93,000 Syrians. Now he has changed his “calculus” and decided to arm the Syrian insurgents, albeit in a limited fashion, because he has become convinced that Assad has used chemical weapons in his fight to the finish, killing about 100-150 people.

Obama declared last summer that Assad’s use of such weapons would be a “red line.” What he didn’t explain (and hasn’t still) is why that is worse than leveling of entire urban neighborhoods and killing of tens of thousands of innocents. Both are evil acts to be sure. But is the second on a different moral plane altogether, especially given that using chemical munitions (sarin seems to be the Syrian regime’s compound of choice) has not been to integral Assad’s battlefield strategy? Maybe so. But the president, despite his silver tongue, has surely not explained why it is.

The shift in Obama’s policy is more than a moral curiosity. It has set the stage for America’s direct involvement in a horrific civil war—but without any explanation from the commander-in-chief of what his guiding goal is. It’s not to prevent Syria’s chemical weapons from getting into the hands of hostile third parties; the president has not said that has happened or that Assad can no longer maintain control of these weapons. What then accounts for the administration’s tortured decision to arm the rebels?

One explanation that the White House has offered is that Assad’s use of chemical weapons necessitates a change in policy. But U.S. intelligence agencies have been careful about stating how confident they are about whether chemical weapons were used for sure, and if so in what quantities, how often, and at what cost in human lives. More recently, their confidence seems to have risen, but Syria is now a murky battlefield with multiple participants, and it’s getting even murkier. The president can’t be expected to divulge the sources U.S. intelligence agencies have relied on to find out if Assad has used chemical weapons, but he can surely provide a fuller explanation than he has so far.

There are two reasons why he should do so; the first has to do with the past, the second the future.

An Exemplar of Confusion

Not long ago confident, public assertions by American officials that another brutal regime had weapons of mass destruction paved the path for a war that lasted nearly a decade. It cost more than $800,000,000, led to the deaths of nearly 4,500 American soldiers (and many more Iraqis), wounded about eight times as many, and left behind a country so torn by sectarian war that its cohesion remains in question. The point is not that we’re headed for another Iraq; that’s hardly likely. It’s that in the recent past, confidently proclaimed intelligence findings that proved stunningly inaccurate had major consequences. That alone warrants caution about what is now being offered as the basis for what, the president’s desire to calibrate his involvement notwithstanding, will amount to a big change in U.S. policy in Syria.

It is of course quite possible that Assad has used chemical weapons—he is not a squeamish man—but it’s also true that there are many parties, inside and outside Syria, who want the United States more deeply involved in its war. They doubtless took note of Obama’s “red line” warning, realizing that his categorical commitment would effectively box him in were evidence found that the Syrian government had used chemical agents.

As for the future, there are two questions for the United States in light of President Obama’s decision to arm the anti-Assad forces: “What now?” and “How does this end?” Alas, on neither one has the president been clear. Worse, his administration is an exemplar of confusion. Obama’s decision is not a sound policy change; it’s a reluctant president’s effort to deliver on a commitment and to appease war hawks but without doing any more than the minimum. His deputy national-security adviser has said that the president does not plan to send “major weapons systems” to the insurgents or to establish a no-flight zone over Syria. The president’s mistake is to assume he won’t have to do more than what he wants to do and that he can resist advocates of deeper intervention at home and events within Syria. He is now hostage to both.

The president’s decision, it appears, is to supply the resistance with small arms and ammunition. But the reason given for doing this is not that it is meant to punish Assad for using chemical weapons, though that, according to the administration, was indeed the catalyst for Obama’s announcement. Instead, it’s to change the balance on the battlefield and to reverse the gains Assad has made, especially since the fall of Qusayr this month and the added momentum his forces have gained since that success.

But how will small arms and ammo have the desired effect when Iran and Russia have been delivering Assad armaments that are much more lethal, and in large quantities? One is left to conclude either that Obama’s decision amounts to a symbolic move, or that it is a prelude to larger arms deliveries by the United States, something that would require the presence of American intelligence operatives and trainers on the ground. It’s not hard to understand why the president wouldn’t want say that the latter is in fact the case: Americans are not in favor of intervening in this war.