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Is Doing Something in Syria Better than Nothing?

Why Obama’s small plan to send small arms to the Syrian rebels might fail on all counts.

This week, President Barack Obama finally reached the point where he had to decide between something and nothing on Syria -- between diplomacy which had reached a dead end and lethal assistance to the rebels which he had steadfastly refused to offer.

Apparently, he could not bring himself to choose nothing in the face of a savage campaign of violence which has claimed the lives of almost 100,000 people, and perhaps many more. But his choice of something is so modest that it's unlikely to change the increasingly one-sided battle between the Syrian regime and the rebels.

I happened to speak to a senior administration official who has been involved in the discussions of Syria policy a few hours before the White House announcement. He made a point of saying that "there's nothing that we can do in the next week or two that will tip the balance." But he also noted that the announcement that "help is on the way" could "change the emotional balance" by giving the rebels hope and making Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fear that his opposition will become a more formidable force. It's clear that the White House was contemplating much tougher measures, including a "stand-off" assault on Syrian aerial assets carried out by American ships and planes located beyond Syria's borders. But the course that Obama adopted -- supplying the rebels with small arms and possibly anti-tank weaponry -- might shift the emotional balance in the opposite direction, by convincing both sides that the United States would rather see the rebels lose than take the risks involved with more robust support.

Secretary of State John Kerry has long spoken of the need to "change Assad's calculus," but this is not the announced goal of the new policy. Rather, Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor, explained that once intelligence analysts concluded that Syria had crossed the "red line" against the use of chemical weapons, the president felt bound to act. That's almost certainly not the actual rationale for the decision: administration officials have been holding urgent discussions on Syria policy since last week, when Assad's forces, along with perhaps 2,000 troops from Hezbollah, ousted the rebels from the strategic crossroads town of Al Qusayr. The regime is now organizing a much larger, and potentially far more devastating assault on Aleppo, Syria's largest city. The "now or never" moment for the administration had suddenly and unexpectedly arrived -- the Syrian equivalent of the moment in Libya when only foreign intervention could prevent a murderous government attack on civilians in Benghazi. But the public explanation matters: If the professed goal is to preserve the president's credibility, rather than to change the balance of power, then Obama has succeeded simply by doing something rather than nothing.

I don't think Obama is that kind of cynic, but I do think he has persuaded himself that, whatever may be good for Syria, getting involved with the rebels is bad for the United States, and bad for him politically. Bill Clinton, who knows a thing or two about ignoring atrocities for fear of the political consequences of action, put the matter bluntly earlier this week when he said, "If you refuse to act and you cause a calamity," you can't excuse yourself later by saying, "Oh my god, two years ago there was a poll that said 80 percent of you were against it."

Syria is of course a much tougher case than Rwanda, for all the reasons we know: Syria is a modern state with a modern army; what began as a civil war is rapidly expanding into a region-wide sectarian war; and the rebels the United States proposes to help include a sizeable and growing number of jihadists affiliated with al Qaeda. Obama has had innumerable good reasons to hesitate. But it is worth recalling that this is a president who devoted his Nobel Peace Prize speech to the theory of just war, and who has established an Atrocities Prevention Board. And the mass killing in Syria constitutes the gravest atrocities the world has seen since the ethnic cleansing in Darfur a decade ago. No, it's not Rwanda; but it is comparable to the violence in the Balkans, which Clinton did finally move to stop -- and succeeded.

It has become almost unseemly to use the explicitly moral language of "the responsibility to protect." I have been struck by the rising tide of world-weary realism which has governed public debate on Syria. Last week, my friend Martin Burcharth, U.S. correspondent for the Danish daily Information, asked me to contribute to a what-to-do-about-Syria survey of American pundits. When I argued for arming the rebels and degrading the Syrian Air Force with missile strikes, Martin told me that I was more "daring" -- i.e., reckless -- than any of his other correspondents. There has been a growing consensus among American pundits that Syria is a loser, a hopeless cause to which the United States should give the widest possible berth. I was talking about Syria with two foreign policy experts just before the White House announcement; both agreed that Syria was bound to fracture into ethnic cantons, that the United States could do nothing to halt the dynamic, and that Obama had been wise to steer clear of any military engagement in that woebegone country.

They may be right; and yet we have passed very suddenly from the argument that the United States need not intervene because the rebels are bound to win, to the argument that the United States should not intervene because the rebel cause is doomed. Had Obama agreed to arm the rebels last year, when senior officials including Hillary Clinton urged him to do so, he had a real chance of forcing Assad to "change his calculus." The bar is much higher today: Hezbollah's decision to throw its resources fully into the war has enormously emboldened Assad and demoralized the opposition. Critics who have long thought Washington has no dog in the Syrian fight now make the very plausible claim that nothing the administration is prepared to do could blunt Assad's growing military power.

Of course, if that's true, a Balkanized Syria might be a best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario is that Syrian forces would overrun rebel strongholds everywhere save a few pockets in the north, and exact a terrible vengeance on helpless civilians. In the face of such a possibility, helping right the balance between the two sides would itself constitute a humanitarian act. And Obama could have done that if he chose. He would not have needed to declare a no-fly-zone, as John McCain and Lindsey Graham have demanded, though doing so would certainly save the lives of thousands of civilians. Jeffrey White, a military analyst who spent his career with the Defense Intelligence Agency, told me that even in the absence of such a campaign, arming the rebels with 120 mm. mortars and surface-to-air missiles could help them weaken, if not neutralize, Assad's vast advantage in armor and aircraft.

Obama has now crossed a line that he had hoped not to cross. Those who wish he had not done even that much will say that a slippery slope leads to U.S. boots on Syrian soil. That's not a serious argument; this is a president who is focused on reducing American troop deployments, not finding new pretexts for combat. The real question is how much the United States and other outside actors can do to stop the killings, to force Assad to reconsider, to stabilize a region now facing the threat of sectarian war. You can't help feeling that Obama is trying to simultaneously satisfy incompatible moral and strategic calculations. There's a very real danger that he will fail on both counts.

DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP/Getty Images

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