Why the Current Syria Policy Doesn't Make Sense

Obama's move to arm the rebels is angering both sides of the intervention debate.
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A Free Syrian Army fighter carries a homemade rocket to be launched towards Nairab military airport, which is controlled by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in Aleppo, on June 14, 2013. (Reuters)

President Obama's decision to arm Syrian rebels -- after resisting such a course for nearly two years -- has come under some withering criticism. Marc Lynch, who has long opposed military intervention in Syria, calls it "probably his worst foreign policy decision since taking office," while Daniel Larison casts it as "certainly one of the two or three worst [decisions]." Despite being on the opposite side of the debate -- I began writing in favor of military intervention nearly a year and a half ago -- it is hard to disagree with their assessment that providing "small arms" to the rebels is unlikely to make much difference.

What makes Obama's decision so unsatisfying -- and even infuriating -- to both sides is that even he seems to acknowledge this. As the New York Times reports, "Mr. Obama expressed no confidence it would change the outcome, but privately expressed hope it might buy time to bring about a negotiated settlement."

To some extent like the 2010 Afghanistan "surge," this is a tactical move that seems almost entirely detached from any clear, long-term strategy. A source of constant and sometimes Kafkaesque debate among interpreters of Obama's Syria policy is figuring out what exactly the policy is in the first place. Secretary of State John Kerry has been promoting the Geneva II peace conference, but his explanations of U.S. goals have tended to confuse. For example, there is this: "The goal of Geneva II is to implement Geneva I." But no one is quite sure what the goals of Geneva I were, except perhaps to "lay the groundwork" for Geneva II.

If the goal is to help rebels regain the military advantage and, second, to diminish the regime's ability to kill, then the proposed means fall well short (for a detailed discussion of why small arms are likely to be ineffective, see C.J. Chivers' explanation here). The fact that nearly everyone seems to agree on the ineffectiveness of such a course -- including even Obama himself -- suggests the president did this because he needed to "do something." It was, after all, getting embarrassing, with open mockery of Obama's fecklessness, in general, and a rather squiggly "red line" that insisted on shifting in odd directions, in particular. But that Obama has done something he clearly didn't want to do for precisely the wrong reasons does not inspire confidence. Rarely has a major policy change been announced so circumspectly with so little conviction.

The fact of the matter, and one the administration seems intent on eliding, is that the only way to help the rebels regain the advantage and force the Assad regime to make real concessions is with a credible threat of military intervention through airstrikes against regime assets and the establishment of no-fly and no-drive zones. This will mean taking additional steps and slowly deepening our involvement, a result which some now fear is inevitable. Of course, the other argument -- eloquently advanced by Larison over the past year -- is that no vital interests are at stake and that the United States would be better staying out altogether. This latter argument, despite defining U.S. "interests" in extremely narrow terms, at least has the virtue of some internal consistency.

For those who supported the NATO operation in Libya -- perhaps the epitome of a non-interests-based intervention -- and past interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, the continued reluctance to entertain direct military action is more difficult to explain, although it no doubt has to do with the legacy of Iraq. Iraq is often mentioned by the administration as offering lessons for the present, although why Syria should be so analogous to Iraq, rather than say Libya or Bosnia, is rarely specified in any detail (Syria shares some of Iraq's sectarian features, but, to my knowledge, this was not the reason that so many felt the war was illegal, unnecessary, and based on false pretenses). Misplaced support for the Iraq war has led to an overcorrection in the opposite direction.

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Shadi Hamid is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, a fellow at the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution's Center for Middle East Policy, and the author of Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East.

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