At the Group of 8 meeting in Northern Ireland, Vladimir Putin warned his colleagues about plans to send light arms and ammunition to the Syrian rebels. President Obama must have taken some satisfaction in the words of the Russian president. Russia has been the primary supplier of weapons to the Syrian regime of Bashir al-Assad. What would Assad and allies make of Washington, London and Paris moving more aggressively to bolster the firepower of the rebels?
One strong argument has been that Assad will not give way, whether heading into exile or joining settlement negotiations, without seeing his position collapse around him. That explains, in part, the Obama White House choosing to send arms to the rebels, reacting not so much to the use of chemical weapons by the regime as to Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed groups joining the fight to aid Assad, tipping the balance on the battlefield.
Now the question for the White House is whether the president should do more to support the rebels. The challenge is teeming with complications. Many point to Rwanda, where the United States and partners failed to act, and to the Balkans, where military intervention proved effective. Each involved genocide, or something worse than the civil war fracturing Syria.
More, in Bosnia, American troops joined in keeping the eventual peace. That isn’t going to happen in Syria. Neither should it.
What there is in Syria is a humanitarian crisis, already more than 90,000 dead and 1.5 million refugees. The Group of 8 has committed an additional $1.5 billion in relief assistance. Would a military escalation by the United States and others, say, striking air fields and other key targets with cruise missiles, accelerate a political settlement and an end to the slaughter? Does such a step make sense even with al-Qaida types among the rebels?
Worth stressing is that there are shortcomings no matter the choice, mounting a larger strike or keeping distance. This isn’t just about the fate of the Assad regime. Rather, the battle is part of a Sunni-Shiite conflict across the region. Topple Assad, even pull together a negotiated deal, and the bloodshed soon may continue, anyway.
Which reflects the pressing reality. At an earlier point, ample support for the rebels may have been decisive in bringing a better outcome. It is tempting to think a military escalation would make the difference, causing members of the Assad regime to bolt. What the White House must weigh is the fallout and the next step, or how much deeper into Syria. That explains its understandable hesitance.