Throughout the long Syrian uprising, President Obama’s sense of caution has been well-placed. He is aware of how US involvement in the Middle East can alter perceptions of the very groups that Americans aim to assist. He is rightly conscious of the need to engage allies and build coalitions before taking any steps that may lead to deeper entanglements. Now, as the United States increases its role in the Syrian conflict, it must develop a clear sense of how it can change the equation on the ground, and how those changes will advance American interests.
Obama’s decision to step up aid to rebel groups, in the form of small arms and ammunition, needs to be assessed in light of those considerations, and of the equally vital need to make sure that US arms don’t reach extremist groups.
Obama’s decision, in itself, is unlikely to be a game-changer. It is a middle path in a field of bad options. But its goals are important. It seeks to punish the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad for crossing the “red line” in using chemical weapons. It also aims, at a time when Assad appears to have gained the upper hand, to increase pressure on the regime to negotiate his departure. Clearly, replacing Assad with a more representative government would be in the interests of the United States and the Mideast, because his desperate efforts to maintain power have greatly fanned the flames of sectarian violence. Assad is a member of the Alawite offshoot of Shiite Islam, and he has rallied Shiites in Iran and the Hezbollah militia to help him quell the largely Sunni Muslim resistance.
These moves by Assad, Iran, and Hezbollah have the potential to turn a popular uprising against an oligarchical dictator into a much wider war between Shiites and Sunnis in countries throughout the region, including neighboring Iraq. If Assad were to maintain power, it would not be under the same terms as before the rebellion; it would be as the dictator of a more repressive and militaristic regime, largely beholden to Iran. And the fact that the majority of his repressed subjects are Sunni would be a constant flashpoint, pushing the Middle East toward perpetual religious war.
But while the United States has an interest in assisting the rebels, it must avoid being drawn into the sectarian fray; the perception that the United States is pro-Sunni and anti-Shiite would dramatically alter American standing throughout the region. That’s why Obama is wise to keep US involvement limited, and to emphasize that American objections to Assad are strictly on the grounds that he’s an abusive dictator and user of chemical weapons, not because of any US preference for one religious group over another. Further, by restricting aid to small arms, Obama is protecting the United States against the possibility that weapons of unusual destructive force might end up in the hands of pro-Al Qaeda factions in the Syrian resistance.
So many interests and forces collide in the Middle East that all steps must be taken with care. That’s why Obama’s long deliberations, which might look to some like a sign of weakness, are ultimately wise. Obama’s decision to offer limited help to the rebels, which came after a close analysis of changes on the ground, should mark an extension of that policy of caution, not a shift away from it.