With the Kofi Annan diplomatic charade played out, pressures will mount for the United States to head off a wider civil war in Syria by playing the lead role in arming the rebels—and perhaps even by direct U.S. military intervention. That course of action was wrong a year ago and is wrong now. It puts on Washington almost all of the responsibility for ensuring the victory of a highly diverse rebel group barely known to U.S. intelligence, for the terrible civil war that will only grow bloodier, and for the costly and unpredictable aftermath. Rather, this responsibility belongs preeminently to Syria's Arab neighbors and Turkey. These neighbors, and not the United States, have a vital interest in Syria's future. Therefore, the main task for the Obama administration should be to get those neighbors to accept their responsibility based on their vital interest in what will happen in Syria—and to point them in the right direction. In the best sense, this means leading from behind.
American neoconservatives and liberal humanitarian interventionists demand that the United States lead from the front—that Washington arm the rebels and perhaps undertake air operations as well. To them, virtually every international problem calls for Washington to provide the solutions, with money, with military force, and with diplomacy. But in the case of Syria, that approach totally mistakes the order of interests in the civil war. Above all, it must be understood that it is the neighbors that will suffer most from the consequences of what is happening in Syria, whether a long and bloody civil war or a takeover of that country by Sunni jihadists bent on overthrowing American friends like Jordan and Lebanon, and threatening Israel. America's interest is in helping those neighbors work their way through the Syrian problem, not in assuming responsibility for that mess.