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On Syria, a Realistic Assessment and an Unrealistic Response

Administration insiders appear to be acknowledging the obvious, if not quoted for attribution: namely, that the Syrian insurgency is full of extremists and that, if the insurgency were to prevail now, the result could a government not to our liking. But the result of this realistic analysis is an unrealistic course of action. The Wall Street Journal reports that:

the U.S. has sought a controlled increase in support to moderate rebel factions. President Barack Obama is expected as early as this week to authorize the provision of nonlethal military aid such as body armor and night-vision goggles to moderate fighters, though officials said Mr. Obama still opposes sending American arms and taking unilateral military action.

The administration goal, according to people briefed on the effort, is to provide enough aid to strengthen U.S.-vetted fighters without tipping the balance so far that Islamists who dominate rebel ranks will be able to overrun the regime and its institutions.

This is an exquisitely calibrated strategy that could work only in a PowerPoint briefing in Washington. It has no chance of working on the ground because the U.S. does not exercise sufficient influence with the rebel groups to turn their efforts up or down like a faucet.

Even when we provided a far greater amount of aid to the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 we could not control their movements. Recall that many in the State Department wanted the Northern Alliance to refrain from taking Kabul until a coalition government could be announced. But the Taliban crumbled too quickly and the Northern Alliance was not about to stop its offensive. In Syria we have much less control and thus much less chance of controlling the pace of operations. War has a remorseless logic of its own, which cannot be modulated by remote control.

The concerns about what would happen if Assad were to fall are real, although, given Assad’s recent counteroffensive in the north, we should also be worried about whether he is actually going to fall. The best way to topple him and to shape a post-Assad regime is to do precisely what Obama won’t: to arm the moderate opposition and support their efforts with a no-fly zone. Micromanagement from thousands of miles away is a poor substitute for roll-up-your-sleeves work on the ground–and in the air.


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