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."

French diplomats say they don't know what Obama plans. "I don't know if the president himself has made his decision," said one French official. "It is a little bit too soon to tell. "

So the question becomes: Can Obama continue what must be described as a neither-in-nor-out approach to Syria, given that it has become a humanitarian and regional disaster that could threaten the stability of the entire Middle East?

It is an approach that, according to the CIA's own assessment, will probably not be enough to turn the tide. Earlier this year, the CIA concluded that arming the rebels with small-scale weapons--what is likely now being considered--could not tip the balance of the conflict. U.S. and Israeli officials still fear that delivering anything larger or more lethal, such as antitank or surface-to-air missiles, could be used on U.S., Israeli, or commercial targets if they fell into terrorist hands. Chris Dougherty, an expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, says the "ideal" weapons to arm the Syrian opposition groups--such as man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) that could counter the Syrian Air Force's control of the skies, antitank guided munitions such as the FGM-148 Javelin, and GPS- or laser-guided mortar rounds--are also the weapons that "have the most potential for blowback."

"Right now, it seems as though the influx of foreign weaponry (e.g., Unmanned aerial vehicles from Iran), increased involvement from Hezbollah, and more effective tactics have allowed the Syrian military to isolate the rebel groups into urban pockets before defeating them in detail," says Dougherty. "Giving the rebels improved anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons would allow them to counter-attack the heavy forces that are hemming them in. It appears as though the regime has also compromised the rebels' communications networks, so secure radios could help them coordinate operations without giving the regime advanced warning.

"By themselves, however, these systems are unlikely to turn the tide back in favor of the rebels," Dougherty adds. "Syria has a large, relatively well-armed military that seems to have learned some lessons from its initial setbacks." He says "the most effective support the United States and its allies could give the moderate groups would be unconventional warfare training and advice from special operations forces."

Obama is hamstrung not only by his own caution but also by the evident reluctance of the American people to get involved. According to a recent Gallup Poll, 68 percent of Americans say the United States should not use military force in Syria, even if diplomatic efforts to end the civil war fail.

Yet as National Journal observed in a recent cover story, the Middle East may be suffering as much now from American neglect as it suffered a decade ago from too much intervention, which began with the misbegotten Iraq invasion. In recent weeks, Iraq has suffered the worst outbreak of violence since U.S. forces withdrew in December 2011. More broadly, the growing Sunni-versus-Shiite bloodshed in Syria has reignited that sectarian divide in Iraq and Lebanon, testing seriously the artificial national borders imposed by British and French colonialists nearly a century ago. If Syria comes apart, then Iraq and Lebanon, which have barely held together under strain from their own various autonomous groups, could follow.