Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in." So said Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Part III. He was complaining about the impossibility of leaving the mafia behind, but the quote undoubtedly expresses the feelings of President Barack Obama as he contemplates the difficulty of extricating the United States from the Middle East. He is eager to pivot to Asia and sees bringing soldiers home from Iraq and Afghanistan as one of his most important legacies. Like the mafia, however, the Middle East has a way of pulling the United States back in. First in Afghanistan, then in Libya, and now in Syria, events on the ground and pressure from allies convinced a reluctant president to make new military commitments.
But if the United States wants to exert influence over events in this turbulent region, it will have to do more than provide military assistance. Even if the arms the United States will supply to the Syrian rebels were to topple President Bashar al-Assad -- which at the moment seems an unlikely outcome, barring the employment of American air power -- the bloodletting will almost certainly continue. Rival factions will compete for power, and American-backed forces under Gen. Salim Idriss and allied figures could easily lose out to the al-Nusrah Front and other Islamist extremists. Look at what's happened in Libya, where in the aftermath of Qaddafi's ouster, militias and militants exercise more authority than the central government. Or consider Egypt, where the downfall of a dictator has allowed the Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist organization hostile to the United States and Israel, to consolidate authority in an increasingly authoritarian manner.