President Obama is reluctantly nearing a tipping point regarding what, if anything, the U.S. should do about the dangerous chaos engulfing Syria and spilling over into neighboring countries. After dithering for two years and losing some reasonable opportunities for assisting the good guys among the rebels, it is becoming impossible to continue to ignore what is happening on the ground in Damascus, Aleppo. Hama and Homs.
The problems Syria presents for the United States fall into three broad categories:
- The use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. This human rights violation is abhorrent. An appropriate response by the world community is essential. However, President Obama painted himself into a corner on this when he drew a line in the sand, promising U.S. action if such weapons were employed.
- The likelihood that chemical and biological weapons, missiles, bombs and other armaments will fall into the wrong hands. This was brought home strikingly when Israel bombed Syrian weapons caches bound for the Hezbollah extremists in Lebanon. That risk is compounded by the presence of Iranian Revolutionary Guard fighters on the ground on behalf of Assad, plus the growing al-Qaeda presence on the rebel side.
- The risk that the chaos that reigns in this most volatile, dangerous region of the world could get much worse if the rebels win. The deteriorating situation in Iraq, which is rapidly sinking into all-out civil war, might look like a minor skirmish compared to a post-Assad Syria torn apart by the historical animus toward each other of the various Syrian factions—Druze, Alawites, Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Turkmen, Christians et al. Moreover, Syria’s instability could spill over into Jordan, Lebanon and other countries in the region.
If the president contemplates any action, it is imperative that he take a lesson from history and ask for a quid pro quo for any assistance we provide and undertake any assistance only as part of a multilateral effort.
Any assistance we provide has to be tied to benefits to us when the rebels emerge victorious. Part of that is securing control of our arms after the rebels prevail. Another component is making it clear to a post-Assad regime that we will not provide any post-revolution financial or other aid or support until our surviving arms are secured.
History instructs us as to why we need this quid pro quo. The model template is President Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease program that helped Britain survive the Nazi onslaught until the U.S. entered World War II; the failed template is the billions of dollars of weapons President Reagan gave the Afghan mujaheddin, with no strings attached, in order to help them defeat the 1979-1989 Soviet invasion.
Supplying weapons to the Syrian rebels risks repeating the Afghanistan mistake, given that so many of them are al-Qaeda members and radical Islamists who wish us, as well as our regional ally, Israel, harm.
Page 2 of 2 - President Obama’s current caution is justified. His predecessor’s ill-considered invasion of Iraq and badly executed war in Afghanistan has made it very difficult for succeeding chief executives to intervene militarily anywhere. Nevertheless, there is a growing clamor for President Obama to do something. Some members of Congress and major media — both of whom should know better — are recklessly calling for a “no-fly zone” over Syria in addition to supplying weapons, a terrible idea given that country’s sophisticated anti-aircraft capabilities.
Finally, it is critical that any assistance to Syria must be a multilateral effort involving NATO, the European Union, and/or the United Nations. We make a big mistake if we go it alone.
Richard Hermann is a part-time Canandaigua resident and Canandaigua Academy graduate. Email him care of Messenger Post Media at email@example.com.