Why We're Still Not Intervening in Syria

The U.S. is giving up on the Arab Spring, and the Syrian dictator knows it.
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A man holds posters of Assad in a rally in support of him in 2011. (Khaled al-Hariri/Reuters)

Bashar al-Assad is, finally, having a very good week.

The latest allegations of chemical-weapons use against the Syrian dictator don't matter nearly as much as other dramatic developments--in particular, the United States' willingness to stand aside while Assad's autocratic brethren in the Egyptian junta cold-bloodedly killed some one thousand protesters, supported by the Saudis and Gulf states.

And this week, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, finally said plainly what Obama administration officials have been thinking privately since June, the last time Washington said its "red line" had been crossed and pledged military aid to the Syrian rebels--then did nothing. In a letter to Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., Dempsey said flatly that U.S. aid to the rebels know would just end up arming radical, possibly al-Qaida-linked groups. And Obama wasn't going to allow that to happen.

What it all means is that we may now be at a historic turning point in the Arab Spring--what is effectively the end of it, at least for now. Assad, says Syria expert Joshua Landis, is surely taking on board the lessons of the last few weeks: If the United States wasn't going to intervene or even protest very loudly over the killing of mildly radical Muslim Brotherhood supporters, it's certainly not going to take a firmer hand against Assad's slaughter of even more radical anti-U.S. groups. "With a thousand people dead or close to it, and America still debating whether to cut off aid, and how and when, that's got to give comfort to Assad," says Landis, a professor at the University of Oklahoma. "The Egyptians brushed off the United States and said.... Well, we don't want to end up like Syria. And America blinked. And Israel and the Gulf states were in there telling them to hit the protesters hard."

What began, in the U.S. interpretation, as an inspiring drive for democracy and freedom from dictators and public corruption has now become, for Washington, a coldly realpolitik calculation. As the Obama administration sees it, the military in Egypt is doing the dirty work of confronting radical political Islam, if harshly. In Syria, the main antagonists are both declared enemies of the United States, with Bashar al-Assad and Iran-supported Hezbollah aligning against al-Qaida-linked Islamist militias. Why shouldn't Washington's policy be to allow them to engage each other, thinning the ranks of each?

And by all accounts, the administration and the Pentagon simply don't want to risk the "blowback" that could occur if the Assad regime collapses and serious weapons fall into the hands of al-Qaida. As one Washington-based military expert points out, Assad is just not enough of a threat to U.S. interests. "Look at how long it took us to decide to back the mujahedeen in the 1980s against the Soviet Union. Syria is not the Soviet Union," the expert says.

Dempsey, in his letter, said that deciding what to do about Syria "is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides." He added that "the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not."

On Wednesday, in a replay of what happened a year ago, the administration appeared to push for more time in ascertaining whether Assad had used chemical weapons. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the administration was "deeply concerned by reports that hundreds of Syrian civilians have been killed in an attack by Syrian government forces, including by the use of chemical weapons," but was working "to gather additional information."

This is familiar ground. Back in June, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said in a statement that the administration would start supplying the Syrian rebels' "Supreme Military Council" and "consulting with Congress on these matters in the coming weeks." But there is little evidence that any military aid has reached the rebels.

President Obama's biggest problem in terms of his credibility is that he's wedded to a "narrative" that won't stand up to scrutiny any longer, says Landis. "We started this off saying it was about democracy and freedom. We've stuck to that interpretation. We didn't say this is about economic mismanagement and poverty," which is what the protests were largely about. But now "nobody believes they're democrats anymore. That's the problem. What we saw in Egypt signals that America has changed its mind and has backed away from the Muslim Brotherhood and all these Islamic groups. And the Syrian rebel groups are to the right of the Muslim Brotherhood."

Advantage, Assad.

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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