There has been a lot of Syria news in the last week or so. Elements of Syria’s armed opposition took over al Jarrah airbase in the Aleppo province and rebels and government forces are engaged in a pitched battle on the eastern side of Damascus in what some regard (as with other flare-ups of violence in the Syrian capital) as a prelude to the Syrian “end game.” Just before that, the president of Syria’s National Coalition of Opposition Forces, Mouaz al Khatib, stated that he was ready for talks with representatives of the Assad regime, a statement that was followed by meetings with the Russian and Iranian foreign ministers in Munich. It doesn’t seem that the National Coalition is much of a coalition and it is unclear who exactly al Khatib is leading since other elements of the opposition quickly and vehemently denied their willingness for such talks to the government. These developments come as the pace of people streaming out of Syria has picked up considerably. There are now 374,000 refugees in Jordan, 180,000 have fled to Lebanon, about 185,000 Syrians in Turkey, 90,000 are displaced in Iraq, and 16,000 in Egypt—in other words, about four percent of Syria’s population. Let’s not forget that somewhere in the neighborhood of 70,000 Syrians have lost their lives in the civil war. Expect the numbers of refugees and deaths to climb.
Observers tend to be at a loss over what might turn the tide in Syria. Until recently, there were still misplaced hopes for a diplomatic solution, the legacy of which continues in the lamentable mission of UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. There were also expectations that the people around Bashar al Assad, especially his security chiefs, would bring him down in exchange for a role in the “new Syria.” More recently, every opposition battlefield success, every firefight in or near Damascus, every officer that defects is, according to reporters, a tantalizing sign of the “corrosion” of the core of the Assad regime. It is true that the combination of incompetence and pressure from rebel forces has done a fair amount of damage to government forces, but the Syrian military does not seem to have lost the will or ability to fight. Let’s also not forget that the irregular forces like the shabiha, Hezballah brigades, and elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps are involved in this high-stakes fight. In addition to people who are willing to continue to fight—if not for Bashar himself—then for their interests that are wrapped up in the regime that the Syrian president leads, Damascus has two advantages: 1) the opposition has not presented itself as a credible alternative to Assad and he knows it. Reportedly when Lakhdar Brahimi mentioned a transition to the Syrian leader, he asked, “to whom?,” knowing full well that the UN envoy had nothing. 2) because the opposition isn’t credible, there is no international consensus about what to do in Syria.
None of this is news, but rather it is a long way of getting to the recent uptick in the “we must arm the Syrians” debate underway inside the Beltway. The recent revelations that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, disgraced former CIA director David Patreaus, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey all “conceptually supported”—which is DC-speak for we support a policy even if we have serious reservations about it—arming the Syrian rebellion, have given new life to proponents of intervention. The Washington Post blasted President Obama for overruling his national security team. The Post, Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, and a handful of policy analysts have made a strong case for providing Syria’s rebels with weaponry on moral and strategic grounds, though they tend to confuse the justness of their cause with the certainty of outcome. Still, there is a reason Clinton et al’s support for a more robust Syria policy was “conceptual.” Recently, a former senior government official—who strongly disagrees with my pro-intervention (with reservations) inclinations—summed up the Syria dilemma quite well when he intoned, “Intervention produces problems and non-intervention produces other problems.” Policy should thus be guided by what problems Washington can resolve, manage, or otherwise live with.
Clearly, President Obama has determined that whatever problems Washington will have to confront as a result of inaction in Syria pale in comparison to those associated with becoming a party to someone else’s civil war. This is not terribly surprising for a president who campaigned on relieving Washington of the burdens of foreign wars and interventions, which clearly resonated among many Americans this past November. Yet, it is unlikely to end the debate about Syria, especially as the rivers of blood continue to flow. After all, the United States cannot credibly claim to be on the side of those demanding freedom or an agent of regional stability if it stays on the sidelines as Syria burns.