The Obama administration's fear of blowback in Syria -- weapons falling into the hands of jihadists and other bad guys -- can be avoided in only one sure way: Throw America's support behind Bashar al-Assad, the vile dictator the White House wants gone. This contradiction is at the heart of Barack Obama's incoherent Syria policy. If Assad loses, it will be the Middle East version of Black Friday with door-busting sales on all the latest weapons, batteries included. If he wins, the door remains closed.
But we don't want him to win -- and the way it's looking, he won't. The Syrian rebels already control large parts of the country, and the war has now entered its third year. Trouble is, inaction on the part of the administration -- a refusal to arm the rebels or impose a no-fly zone -- has allowed what was once a protest movement by some nice professionals to turn into a bloody vendetta without end. More and more, the hard fighting is being done by the very jihadist groups we fear. Syria is an Afghanistan in the making.
It is useless now to point out how this could have been avoided or mitigated. It is far more useful to ask the administration just what its policy is. We know now that three former senior officials -- CIA Director David Petraeus, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta -- supported arming the rebels. This, too, is the position of Britain and France, the former colonial powers in the region. The president's thinking may be evolving, but for the moment, Washington is doing very little.
Recently, however, Secretary of State John Kerry suggested a reappraisal might be under way. In his first Middle East tour, he said in Saudi Arabia that the Syrian opposition had the "clear ability ... to make certain" that the weapons going to the "moderate, legitimate opposition [are], in fact, getting to them." These weapons, though, are not coming from the United States. They are from Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations. If the Saudis can supply weapons, why can't the U. S.? A weapon is a weapon no matter who supplies it.
More than 70,000 people have died in this war and maybe 1 million civilians have fled into neighboring countries. The fight has turned sectarian. Syria is in the process of coming apart and could take some of the region with it. In the end, Assad may wind up retreating to the Alawite heartland on the Mediterranean coast. While there, he might consider reverting to his original family name, Wahhish (savage), instead of the grandiloquent Assad (lion). The new name was chosen by his grandfather -- a bull of a man, a fierce fighter and, incidentally, a reluctant Syrian nationalist.
Britain and France might well break the European arms embargo and send weapons to the rebels. The United States should not only do the same but take a leadership role. At the same time, a no-fly zone should be imposed to ground the Syrian air force. The war cannot continue to go on. It is a humanitarian disaster and a looming security risk.
NATO's intervention in the Libyan civil war ended matters pretty quickly. And, yes, there was blowback. Moammar Gadhafi's weapons made their way to Mali where they wound up in the hands of jihadists. But the only way to avoid blowback is to ensure that a dictator like Gadhafi stays in power. Say what you will about him, he kept his stuff under lock and key and even abandoned his nuclear weapons program. He had gone from our ogre to our pal.
Assad, too, has been a pretty reasonable thug. Under him, the Golan Heights has been quiet and his chemical weapons have been secured. He made trouble in other ways -- an alliance with Iran and their mutual support of Hezbollah -- but in general he was a reliable enemy. In contrast, distinctly unreliable elements are spearheading the revolt again him. Ominously, the jihadists of Jabhat Al-Nusra -- not the moderate Free Syria Army -- recently took the city of Raqqah in the north. Things are getting more and more dicey.
Blowback is now a given. There is no sure way to avoid it, only to contain it. That can be done only by swiftly arming the moderates and pressing for as quick an end to the war as possible. Obama, as president of the United States, is in a position to save lives and avoid a regional calamity. His dithering has only made matters worse. Give the man an umbrella: He's becoming a latter-day Neville Chamberlain.
Richard Cohen's email address is email@example.com.
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