Earlier this week, Senator Marco Rubio gave a speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in which he called for the United States to provide ammunition to the Syrian opposition. His colleague, Senator John McCain, has long advocated a more forceful line on Syria, including arms for the Syrian opposition. There certainly is a great deal of frustration in national security circles about the situation in Syria, all the more so after revelations that President Obama turned down the unanimous advice of his top military advisers and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when they counseled greater assistance to the Syrian rebels months ago.
Time marches on, however, and the doors of opportunity that existed earlier in the Syrian uprising are now shut. A good argument six months ago does not necessarily make a good argument today, when the winds of war have so decidedly changed the face of Syria.
Much has already been written about the Nusra Front, a group supported by both Turkey and Saudi Arabia and which the United States considers an Al Qaeda affiliate and has designated a terrorist group. The invaluable SITE Monitoring has translated a Twitter feed from a jihadist who chronicled his travels from Saudi Arabia through Turkey and onward into Syria. SITE Monitoring doesn’t allow those translations to be distributed by their subscribers, but suffice to say, the Nusra Front now appears to be recruiting the most militant Islamists out there; being Syrian or fighting for Syrian freedom has nothing to do with their struggle. The opposition has radicalized, and the most responsible, moderate, and nationalist elements have been purged. Should Bashar al-Assad fall tomorrow, Syria will not be a democracy: At best there would be an ongoing civil war, and at worst the al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists who have taken root inside Syria will consolidate their control.
So what is the United States to do? The question which Rubio addresses belongs to a debate overtaken by events. That does not mean that Washington can afford to be isolationist or simply lead from behind. The United States should prepare to use its airpower to neutralize any group which threatens U.S. national security. It must have contingencies to seize and destroy chemical munitions—no easy feat, as it took weeks to accomplish that task in Libya in 2003, and that was with Libyan government cooperation. Make no mistake: the fact that the Syrian opposition is not our ally does not make Bashar al-Assad and his regime any less odious. Sometimes, as at the height of the Somalia conflict, we need to recognize that there is no natural ally. At present, President Obama’s reticence is correct, but only because his incompetence on the Syria issue has created a self-fulfilling prophecy, one which U.S. administrations will be dealing with for decades to come.