Why Obama Now 'Owns Syria'

The far-ranging implications of the president's decision to provide arms to anti-Assad rebels
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A boy looks back at a building damaged by what activists say was shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Raqqa province, eastern Syria, on March 13, 2013. (Hamid Khatib/Reuters)

As he has done all along, Barack Obama is edging his way up to the precipice in Syria, and even now the president very much does not want to jump in--not into America's third major war in the past decade. Even while announcing what was billed as a major shift of policy Thursday, Obama signaled that he is unwilling to put American boots on the ground or even to be seen as taking the lead in the conflict in Syria.

Judging from the latest signals from the White House, Obama wants the newly announced U.S. military aid to the Syrian rebels to be kept to a stringent minimum, and he wants it to be seen as part of a broader Western aid effort. The issue now is whether the president is deluding himself that he can limit involvement that way.

"In a sense, Obama owns Syria now," says Joshua Landis, a highly regarded Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma. "I presume he'll try to go in toe by toe.... But he has to decide what his objectives are, which he hasn't. Does he want to provide just enough arms to keep the status quo and divide Syria in two? Does he want to give them enough to take Damascus and drive the Alawites [President Bashar al-Assad's ruling sect] into the mountains? Does he want he want to see them take over the entire country?"

The evidence so far is that the administration will go no further than to try to maintain the bloody standoff, which has cost more than 90,000 lives, for the time being. "I assume they're just stirring the pot at this point," Landis says. "He's obviously going to play it by ear, as he's done it so far. He doesn't know how reliable these militias are." As President Clinton did by intervening in the Bosnian war in the mid-1990s, Obama may hope to tilt the balance just enough to lead to a peace settlement, lending credence to Secretary of State John Kerry's efforts to open negotiations between the regime and the leading rebels. Still, Assad may be less willing to talk now that his forces have enjoyed a major victory at Qusair, near the Lebanese border, and appear to be preparing for offensives against Homs and Aleppo.

What is also evident is that everyone else involved in the conflict--and the nations that are sponsoring them--is still waiting on the U.S. president. On Assad's side, Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and Iraq have helped to shift the tide against the Syrian rebels, and they have enjoyed nearly a free hand in the face of Obama's limited response, which until now has amounted to civilian and medical aid. In the West, the major NATO nations--especially France and Britain--are also waiting for Washington to take the lead. Even Kerry conceded in early June that the United States been "late" in getting involved.

In response to the administration's finding--after more than a month of temporizing--that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons that have cost the lives of small numbers of Syrians, the White House announced Thursday that Assad had crossed its "red line" and that weapons would go to the rebels. But the administration said it had no specific plans yet, and by indicating that the CIA, not the Pentagon, would handle the aid, and that a no-fly zone was not yet being considered, Obama signaled he still wants to take a minimalist approach. Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser, said the administration would make specific determinations "on our own timeline."

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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