Until recently, among President Barack Obama's most senior advisors on national security, an ironclad consensus reigned: Arm the Syrian rebels. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 7, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, affirmed that they both supported the call by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and David Petraeus, former director of the CIA, to provide lethal support to the Syrian opposition.
What were the arguments that convinced Obama to overrule his advisors? We may never know, but one thing is clear: They were not based on a sober reading of the situation on the ground in Syria, where U.S. policy is caught in a contradiction between word and deed. Though the president has repeatedly called for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad's ouster, he has proposed no credible plan for achieving that goal.
Last week, for instance, Obama stressed that the United States had "joined with nations around the world in calling for an end to the Assad regime." No sooner had he made this statement, however, than he dispatched Vice President Joseph Biden to attempt -- once again -- to engage Russia on a solution to the conflict. But reliance on mediation from Moscow -- with its emphasis on an Assad-led transition -- has proved to be fundamentally flawed. Assad will never preside over his own removal.
The diplomatic back-and-forth has come at the expense of decisive steps toward regime change. Obama has been right, after a decade of war, to ask hard questions about whether greater U.S. involvement can really work in the interests of either Syria or the United States. But his hands-off policy has now proved to be self-defeating. In the absence of American assistance, the rebels' momentum has stalled, and the battles for Damascus, Aleppo, and Syria's other strategic centers have devolved into a grim stalemate.
Meanwhile, Syrian society is fragmenting, and sectarianism is on the rise. While Jabhat al-Nusra, the local al Qaeda affiliate, is growing ever stronger, the Iranians and Hezbollah have doubled down on their support for the regime. Both have, for example, sent forces to fight alongside the Syrian army. In addition, they are training and equipping the Jaysh al-Shabi, a Syrian government-controlled force that, according to at least one Iranian source, is modeled on the Basij militia of the Islamic Republic. Iran is also providing economic aid and propaganda support.
The polarizing influence of Iran and al Qaeda portends a further escalation of sectarian violence, which will inevitably spill over into surrounding countries. To prevent the worst, the United States must assume a greater leadership role, which, as the president's advisors have made clear, means building the capacity of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a network of nationalist and secular-leaning rebel brigades. This would not necessarily require direct and sustained American military intervention, but it would entail arming the FSA and helping it to develop a countrywide military strategy.
From a purely military point of view, the rebels need help neutralizing the weapons that give the Syrian state its greatest advantages -- namely, armor and fixed-wing aircraft. The provision of light anti-tank weapons would go a long way toward stopping Assad's tanks. However, eliminating the regime's air superiority, which rebels and civilians fear the most, is a thornier challenge. Here the United States and the international community have a crucial role to play in projecting a credible threat of force to stop Assad from indiscriminate bombing. While it may not be necessary to impose a Libya-style no-fly zone (NFZ), it is imperative to keep the threat on the table and to be willing, if required, to carry it out. An obvious alternative to an NFZ is to provide man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADs). But the legal and prudential restrictions are considerable. The use of these systems would require a stronger partnership between the FSA and key regional allies than currently exists.