Syria: America Steps onto the Slippery Slope

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Today's award for the most euphemistic lead paragraph goes to the New York Times. Paraphrasing Hillary Clinton, the Times says the U.S. has agreed to "send communications equipment to help rebels organize and evade Syria's military."

It might be nice if there were communications equipment whose use is inherently confined to evasive maneuvers. But I'm not aware of any. Inevitably, the equipment we're giving the rebels will help them organize as they attack Syria's military, not just as they retreat. It may even help them attack Syrian civilians who share the Alawite ethnicity of Syrian president Bashar al Assad. (Rebel attacks on Alawite civilians took place during the siege of Homs.) What's more, according to the Syrian National Council, this "communications equipment" is going to include night-vision goggles--and I doubt it's just nighttime evasions that the rebels have in mind.

As I've said before, the Syrian situation is such a mess that I don't claim to have a solution. And I guess that limits how indignant I can get about solutions that other people are pushing, including those that my government is pursuing. But could we at least be honest about we're doing? The U.S., by giving the rebels this communications equipment, is now officially helping Syrians kill other Syrians. That's a big step.

There was one other big development at the "Friends of Syria" conference that the Times story was about: Some Arab states are creating a $100 million fund to pay rebel soldiers. Put these two developments together and this looks a lot like the first few steps toward a thoroughgoing intervention by a coalition involving the U.S., Arab states, and others.

And speaking of the term "Friends of Syria": American officials like to depict this as a war of the "Syrian people" against a dictator. They got the dictator part right, but as of now lots of "Syrian people" are still on his side. That includes not just fellow Alawites, but Syria's two million Christians and no small number of Sunnis, especially the more affluent ones. So the intervention that we seem to be sliding into will involve us in what could be a protracted civil war, likely involving ethnic cleansing and other atrocities on both sides.

Don't get me wrong: the demise of Assad could certainly be good for Syria. But that depends both on the likely cost (in terms of the suffering of Syrians) and on what comes after the demise. I'm not aware of the American government having shared credible expectations about either of those. Until it does, I don't see why its citizens should support even the first tentative steps toward intervention.

[Insta-Update: Shortly before posting this, I read that Assad has agreed to withdraw troops from major population centers by April 10. At the risk of sounding cynical, I'll share this twitter reaction from @QifaNabki: "Assad needs til April 10 to make sure that his reforms have really worked in Homs."]

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Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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