On his first official trip abroad, Secretary of State John Kerry is sending a message to the Syrian rebels that, after months of dithering and halfhearted support, the Obama administration is planning to step up assistance of their effort to unseat Butcher Assad: “We are determined that the Syrian opposition is not going to be dangling in the wind wondering where the support is or if it’s coming,” Kerry said in London.
Last year, President Obama overruled the recommendation of his top national security officials and blocked arms shipments to the Syrian rebels. Now the Syrian mess is worse. Thousands more people have died, and the terrorists are stronger than ever. Our allies in the Gulf have far more influence over the war than we do. Indeed, Croatian weapons have begun appearing in the hands of some rebel brigades. Purchased by Saudi Arabia and funneled to certain rebel groups, these are the first heavy weapons to be used by the rebels that were not captured from the arsenals of Butcher Assad or purchased on the black market.
According to reports the new influx of weapons has noticeably changed the war, with previously weak secular and nationalist brigades capturing roadblocks, ambushing regime convoys, and securing supply lines. Nevertheless, as C.J. Chivers writes for the Times, “Washington’s role in the shipments, if any, is not clear.” It is still the Saudis deciding who gets the weapons and the dough, and presumably the Saudis who have the influence over the rebels themselves. Those who have long memories when it comes to unpleasant truths will remember what happened in Afghanistan when the United States let Pakistan and the Saudis decide which groups got support in the fight against the Soviet Union.
Secretary Kerry remains vague about the how the US might increase assistance to the rebels: “We are coming to [the international conference on Syria in] Rome to make a decision about next steps and perhaps even other options that may or may not be discussed further after that.”
Bold words, Mr. Secretary. “Perhaps even other options that may or may not be discussed further” will resonate through the chancelleries of Europe. No doubt they are already quaking in Damascus and Tehran. Brookings’s Michael Doran characterized this approach as “Speak softly, but be sure to carry a big, fluffy pillow—with lace embroidery.”
Months of American dithering over Syria has convinced Iran that the US is a paper tiger. If we were going to go in at all, it would have been smarter to go early. Then, we would have had more ability to ensure that the least radical groups in the opposition were the best armed, best trained, and best positioned to lead the new Syria. Had the civil war ended earlier it would have perhaps been easier to pick up the pieces and avoid the revenge killings that are now much likelier to follow.
But let’s not sugarcoat the option. Intervention in Syria, however indirect, carries real risks. Colin Powell was wrong about WMD in Iraq, but he was right about the Pottery Barn rule: you break it, you bought it. President Obama’s instinctive desire to minimize American exposure to what is virtually certain to be a nasty post-Assad situation in Syria is rooted in serious and sensible concerns.
At Via Meadia, we endorsed the idea of arming the rebels faster and earlier, despite our Pottery Barn rule qualms, because we believed that the impact of change in Syria on Iran’s thinking was worth the risks and costs. A swift and effective US move to support the rebels would have sent a message of resolve to Iran. That resolve might have factored into the mullahs’ calculus on the nuclear issue. America’s most vital concern in the Middle East right now is dissuading the Iranians from developing a nuclear weapons capacity without fighting a war. Strong action in Syria would have sent a signal that we really mean what we say in the region; dithering, hesitating, and ultimately not acting sent exactly the wrong message and has made a bigger and worse war more likely.
Unfortunately, jumping in now is very problematic. We’ve already incurred most of the costs of inaction, and if we act, we’ll face a new set of unpredictable risks. But on balance, the chance that helping the Syrian people push the Assad regime out the door will induce the Iranians to see the wisdom of compromise continues to tip the scales toward helping the Syrian rebels help themselves—though it’s a closer call than it was last year.
There is a lot to admire in this President, but his record of strategic choices is not looking good. He failed to get what would have been a very useful Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq, he is reversing course in Afghanistan, and he may be doing the same in Syria. His leadership is now being tested by China in Asia and by Iran in the Middle East. We like a lot of what he has done: the pivot in Asia and the new emphasis on trade agreements. We also applaud his basic instincts to put more energy into rebuilding our domestic economy and take fewer risks abroad.
But we’ve written before about the tendency to over think the big problems, and to end up, as a result, in a “sour spot” where you get the worst of both worlds. Surging in Afghanistan while announcing a withdrawal deadline was a course of action that incurred the costs of a bigger presence in Afghanistan without a real chance at achieving the solid benefits a successful military campaign might be expected to deliver. Our Syria policy seems to be cut from the same cloth and, worse, our Iran policy may be leading toward a choice no American president wants to make.
One pattern here seems to be a determination to make each big policy decision solely on the merits of the country or the conflict in question rather than out of an integrated regional and global perspective. China, Japan and many other countries note the uncertain, hesitating approach to the Syrian issue in Washington and factor that into their own assessments of American purpose and will.
The mixed messages to Iran are the most troubling. Loud rhetoric about how we will never accept an Iranian nuclear weapon and how containment isn’t an option looks very good in newspapers. But when the US throws in its hand in Iraq, pulls back in Afghanistan, cuts back its forces in the Gulf to a budget sequester, and dithers helplessly over Syria, a lot of mullahs think they can read this President’s mind.
You don’t need to embrace Richard Nixon’s madman theory and try to make other countries so afraid of you that they give in because you might do something crazy. You don’t need to do a George W. Bush and invade a country before you’ve got your facts straight or figured out what to do if you actually win. But you can’t telegraph vacillation time and time again without increasing rather than decreasing the chances of war.
We like this President’s dedication to peace and to as quiet a ride as possible for the United States in international affairs. We don’t miss the days when the whole world wondered what godforsaken hellhole the US would occupy next. But we worry, more rather than less as time goes on, whether the policies the administration chooses are going to bring the results we all want.
[Image: White House flickr stream]