The White House appears to be digging in its heels against any further aid to the Syrian rebels beyond the provision of communications equipment. It is hard to know how lasting this position will be as the president had previously touted Bashar al-Assad as a negotiating partner before calling for his departure from office. And last year, the administration resisted weeks of entreaties to intervene in Libya before deciding to do so. Events in Syria may dictate a more forceful White House response–events such as the recent firing across the Turkish border by Syrian security forces. A few more incidents like that and Turkey may decided to establish “safe zones” within Syria–a move that would probably drag the U.S. along given the close ties between President Obama and Prime Minister Erdogan.
But why has the administration refused to act so far? On its face this refusal is mysterious given that the human rights situation in Syria is even more appalling than the conditions which prevailed in Libya prior to the U.S.-led intervention–and the strategic stakes are considerably higher. The administration has offered various explanations of why intervention wouldn’t work–e.g., claiming that the rebels aren’t united enough or that Assad’s air defenses are too formidable or that UN authorization is lacking–but, as I have previously noted, these explanations are not terribly compelling, especially given a death toll climbing north of 10,000 as we do nothing. If the president wanted to intervene, as he did in Libya, he could easily find cause to override the arguments of naysayers. Why hasn’t he done so?
I can’t help noting that this is an election year in the United States and President Obama is seeking reelection based on a narrative of having “ended” a war in Iraq and being on his way to ending another war in Afghanistan. As the president constantly reminds us, the “tide of war” is receding (try telling that to the Taliban or the Quds Force). Given that’s going to be his pitch to voters, it would be highly inconvenient if, in November, U.S. aircraft were bombing Syrian regime targets. Yet if the president were to act now, there is considerable risk of such an outcome considering the fact that our military intervention in Libya lasted from March to October of 2011.
Thus, on top of various other considerations, election-year politics probably weighs against a more forceful American response. That’s a shame, because if we do nothing, not only will many more Syrians lose their lives, but we will lose a prime opportunity to tilt the Middle East balance of power against our primary adversary, Iran.