When described in this fashion, it all seems so clear. The problem, of course, is that the United States is emerging from over a decade of war -- having spent a great deal in blood and treasure -- and Syria is a mess. The opposition to President Bashar al-Assad has never been coherent, and Islamists have now seemingly gained the upper hand in the opposition's ranks. Syria's non-Sunni minorities fear what would come after Assad, who for his part has stoked the sectarian conflict in an attempt to preserve his regime.
The zero-sum nature of the conflict makes it hard to create a political process that brings elements of the opposition together with members of the regime who don't have blood on their hands. The continuing Russian and Iranian protection of the Assad regime also reduces the prospect of Assad choosing to go. And as long as he remains, it is highly unlikely that there will be a political process to manage the transition. While a political process is unquestionably desirable, it is not made more likely by the ongoing military stalemate, which only raises the costs and deepens the sectarian divide.
The fact that the United States has a great stake in the Syrian conflict -- from both an idealist and a realist point of view -- does not make any of these problems easier to deal with. Still, it is hard to see how the country has a choice. Obama has said that the use of chemical weapons -- or the regime's loss of control of these weapons -- would be a game-changer. Given the direction of the conflict, it is not hard to see that sooner or later we are going to face such a situation.
So what can and should we do now? First, we need to focus on what can be done to change the balance of forces on the ground -- not only between the opposition and the regime, but more importantly within the opposition itself. Second, we need to do more to protect the Syrian population. And, third, we need to focus on containing the conflict so it does not spread outside Syria and destabilize the surrounding states.
When it comes to the first priority, if you talk to any secular members of the opposition, as I have, they will tell you that they simply are not getting the money and arms that the Islamists are receiving. Some may argue that the Islamists -- like Jabhat al-Nusra, which has pledged its loyalty to al Qaeda -- have proved themselves on the battlefield more than any of the secular forces. That is probably true, but they have also had the means to do so.
The reality is that if the United States is to have influence, it will have to provide lethal assistance as well as nonlethal aid. There is no reason we cannot identify groups the United States is prepared to support and then test their ability to uphold the commitments they make and account for the arms America provides. The United States is already vetting those to whom it provides nonlethal assistance -- it can certainly do the same for those who would get arms. Indeed, the quality and the quantity of arms provided -- including anti-tank weapons -- can be calibrated to reflect their performance on their commitments. Put simply, it is an illusion to think that the United States will be able to affect the realities on the ground without providing lethal assistance.
If we are concerned that Islamists are too powerful and could come to power, the answer is surely not to hope that Assad does not fall too quickly. The answer must be to strengthen the capabilities of those who seek a nonsectarian, inclusive Syria in the future.