Obama’s Sensible, Risky Syrian Strategy

President Barack Obama’s decision to rebels in Syria comes too late and carries enormous risks. It’s also the right thing to do -- so long as its aim is to bring about a political settlement, not victory for the rebels.

U.S. officials have acknowledged in briefings that the motivating factor in their decision was the recent intervention by forces from Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah to turn the war in favor of President Bashar al-Assad, although in public they cited the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons.

The Hezbollah-Iran axis undoubtedly prompted U.S. action for several reasons. First, a diplomatic settlement is possible only if both sides understand they cannot win. Hezbollah changed that calculus; Assad no longer has an incentive to negotiate an end to the fighting.

Second, the U.S. is already involved in the Middle East, like it or not, and has interests and allies to secure. There would be significant costs to U.S. interests in letting the war rage on until Iran and Hezbollah secure a victory for Assad.

Third, the United Nations now estimates that 93,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict. Former President Bill Clinton’s invocation of the “wuss” doctrine this week was over the top, but he was right about this: Failing to act as tens or hundreds of thousands of civilians are massacred -- as Clinton did in Rwanda and, for several years, in Bosnia -- will be hard to explain in the future, even if it seems sensible in the present.

Which is not to say that arming the rebels isn’t risky. Arms might end up in the hands of al-Qaeda. Victory for the rebels might produce a new Sunni regime that’s anti-American, and turn Syrian territory into a haven for Sunni extremists to rekindle the civil war in Iraq. Or U.S. arms could be used by the rebels to massacre Alawites and Christians.

These are all reasons to limit support for the rebels to what it takes to force a settlement and protect U.S. allies. They are also reasons for Obama to continue to try to internationalize Syria policy.

Fortunately, the president will have a chance to make his case at next week’s Group of Eight summit in Northern Ireland. His mission: Win over skeptical allies such as Germany (which opposes arming the rebels), and explain to Russian President Vladimir Putin that the U.S. isn’t interested in starting a proxy war in Syria, nor in a victory for the rebels, but in forcing a settlement.

The president’s words might take on added credibility if they were coupled with assurances that he will continue to rebuff calls in Congress to knock out Syria’s air force and create a no-fly zone across the country. Unless in response to escalation by Russia and Iran, those actions could render impossible the strategic equilibrium that could drive the warring parties to stop fighting -- and may end with the U.S. “owning” another war in a broken Middle Eastern country.

And now the big questions: How do you arm Syria’s rebels so that they are strong enough to hold their own but not strong enough to win? How do you keep weapons out of the hands of Islamic extremists? How do you bring about balance in a civil war a world away? Is such a balance even possible?

The only honest answer is this: It’s impossible to say. It’s slightly easier to imagine the alternatives at either end of the spectrum. One is to involve U.S. forces in another large-scale military action in the Middle East, in the unlikely hope that this produces a moderate and tolerant regime; the other is to allow the slaughter to continue, leaving Iran and Hezbollah free to gain ever-greater control of Syria. In this world of bad choices, the best option for Obama is to persuade U.S. allies to help arm the Free Syrian Army with a specific aim of leading both sides in the conflict to accept a political settlement.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.