There is no notion here of a rebel victory; nor is Obama doing anything to suggest that this is his goal. A successful outcome, Rhodes said, would be a “political settlement”—preferably forged and imposed by the United States and Russia together—that pushes Assad out of power but “preserves some elements of the regime” while also bringing in “the opposition, who we believe speaks for the majority of the country.”
This is, to say the least, far-fetched. Russia regards Assad as an ally, his regime as a bulwark of Russian geostrategic interests, and any opening to the opposition as a source of dangerous instability. In fact, regardless of one’s viewpoint or nationality, it is hard to imagine a “political settlement” that shares power between Assad’s henchmen and the various rebel factions as anything but a formula for continued murder and mayhem.
Rhodes acknowledges the difficulty, but notes that what the Russians want least of all is “a downward spiral” in which the region grows more “chaotic” with “extremist elements gaining a foothold in Syria.”
It’s hard to tell for sure, but this seems to be the logic behind Obama’s new policy. A renewed push by the Syrian rebels, fueled by U.S. assistance, will—at least from Assad and the Russians’ point of view—accelerate this downward spiral, intensify this chaos, and heighten the chances that extremist elements might gain a foothold in Syria. Is the hope here that the Russians will then step in and use their leverage to impose order and a settlement?
Again, the chances seem dim. The scenario assumes that, faced with a more cohesive, American-assisted rebel army, the Syrian army will come under crippling attacks and that, as a result, the Syrian government will be forced to the negotiating table. It is equally or more likely, of course, that the Syrians will respond by stepping up the destruction and that the Russians will accelerate the delivery of their arms.
Which leads back to the original question: Just how much is Obama willing to put into this battle, and for how long? At this point, the answer seems to be: not much. “The one option that we basically have taken off the table,” Rhodes said, “is boots on the ground”—and a good thing, too. There is some talk of imposing a no-fly zone on the Syrian air force, but the Joint Chiefs are leery and Obama has not approved such an option. If he does, Rhodes assured the reporters, he would discuss it publicly “in some detail.”
I am not so worried, as some liberal (or anti-interventionist) critics are, that Obama’s decision to arm the rebels may be the first step on a “slippery slope.” Whatever else one might say about Obama, he seems immune to slippery slopes. In Libya he did what he said he would do (which amounted to quite a lot of firepower), and no more. In Afghanistan he acceded to the Joint Chiefs’ request for 33,000 more troops—but then gave them no more, and began to withdraw the whole lot, when they failed to meet the goals that his generals said they’d meet within 18 months. He is extremely alert to the dangers of uncontrolled escalation.
And yet it’s unclear what he realistically hopes to accomplish with this step (which has yet to be defined in any case) and what further steps he might take if it doesn’t do the job. It’s also unclear how broadly he views this conflict and our role in it. Is the goal simply to stabilize Syria? Or does he also view the civil war as one piece of a regionwide Sunni-Shia conflict? (Clearly, the other interested outside powers do.) And in what way does he think his policies might exacerbate—or mitigate, reroute, or tone down—this larger, conflict? Or is he stepping into this deep muddy only to keep the Shia side, chiefly Iran and Hezbollah, from gaining too much strength? In which case, won’t this just ratchet up the violence and swell the death toll?
At some point, perhaps after the consultations with the G8 nations and the allies in the region, President Obama—not a deputy adviser—needs to lay out his thinking on all of these matters.