Obama too little, too late on Syria

Posted Tuesday, Jun. 18, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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The Obama administration's policy on Syria is a strategic disaster that undercuts its entire foreign policy from the Middle East to Asia. If you think I'm exaggerating, read on.

Bashar Assad — whose exit President Obama has demanded for more than a year — is poised to crush the Syrian rebellion, using money, weapons, and manpower provided by Russia, Iran and the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah.

Washington claims to support moderate rebel fighters, but so far it has delivered only food rations and medical kits — no help against Assad's missiles and bombs.

White House officials finally announced last week that they will send military aid to the rebels (supposedly because Assad used chemical weapons). But the aid will include only small arms and ammo, not the heavy weapons required to stall Assad.

Meanwhile, the White House "strategy" for Syria — based on the hope that Moscow would push Assad to relinquish power at peace talks in Geneva — has collapsed. Why would Assad (or Russian leader Vladimir Putin) bend when victory is in sight?

Obama doesn't seem to grasp that Syria has become a strategic contest that the whole world is watching — one that involves core U.S. security interests. The president's indecision on Syria has signaled to Russia, Iran and Hezbollah (not to mention China and the Taliban) that they can ignore Obama's tough talk.

It has also strained relations with Arab allies who fear Iran and want to see its hold on Syria broken.

Two years and 93,000 Syrian deaths into the conflict, Obama's advisers still treat it as a local matter, not a wider strategic threat. No doubt the options are daunting, and, at this late date, the chances slimmer than ever for a stable Syria. But the administration's reluctance is based on refutable myths.

Myth One: The lesson of Iraq is that we shouldn't get involved in another Mideast conflict.

Reality: The cases are crucially different. We invaded and occupied Iraq. In Syria, no one is calling for boots on the ground. The opposition is fractured, but it includes militias headed by former army officers or moderate Muslim civilians.

The CIA spent a year vetting rebel commanders and had identified several responsible ones by last fall. But Obama rejected proposals from David Petraeus and Hillary Clinton to arm them.

Myth Two: Arming rebels would undercut peace prospects.

Reality: The only hope for serious peace talks lies in convincing Assad and his backers in Moscow that he might lose.

Myth Three: If we send arms to the rebels, they may fall into al-Qaida's hands.

Reality: Jihadi groups linked to al-Qaeda already have plenty of weapons, provided by wealthy Gulf Arabs. It's the more moderate commanders who are short of weapons.

Myth Four: It's time to let someone else do it.

Reality: Outsourcing the arming of rebels to Qatar and Saudi Arabia led to the results we most feared. Lacking strong U.S. oversight, the Gulf states armed their favorite militias, often hard-line Islamists.

Meanwhile, the Europeans and Turks remain reluctant to help unless Obama takes the lead.

Myth Five: Arming the rebels will fuel a sectarian war between Shiites and Sunnis.

Reality: Helped by Iran and Hezbollah, Assad is provoking sectarian slaughter to convince Syrians that they need a dictator. The longer this war goes on, the greater the bloodshed.

Myth Six: We can afford to stay uninvolved and let the Syrians sort it out themselves.

Reality: Syria has already become a proxy war, with Iran and Moscow testing Obama's willingness to defend U.S. interests. A swift delivery of antiaircraft and antitank weapons to vetted rebel commanders would make Assad's allies think twice about the dangerous game they are playing. And it would counter the growing global perception that Obama has abandoned America's historic leadership role.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. trubin@phillynews.com

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