Obama Needs to Explain Why He Is Arming Syria’s Rebels

Military analysis.
June 17 2013 6:04 PM

Obama’s Gamble in Syria

The president needs to explain his objective in arming the Syrian rebels, and why he thinks it’s a risk worth taking.

Free Syrian Army fighters run up the stairs of a building in Aleppo's Salaheddine neighborhood.
Free Syrian Army fighters run up the stairs of a building in Aleppo's Salaheddine neighborhood on April 28, 2013.

Photo by Aref Hretani/Reuters

It’s hard to assess President Obama’s decision to send arms to the Syrian rebels because we still don’t know what kinds of arms he’s sending, how long he’s willing to keep the stuff flowing, or what kind of outcome he’s seeking—both to the civil war in Syria and to the political balance in the region.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan

Fred Kaplan is the author of The Insurgents and the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Still, a few things are clear about this new stage of U.S. military involvement.

First, this is not about “humanitarian intervention.” A few news reports have attributed Obama’s sudden shift on the issue to the recent ascension of Susan Rice as his national security adviser and Samantha Power as his U.N. ambassador. This is nonsense, on the face of it: No pair of advisers can make such a dramatic impact on policy so swiftly—especially in this White House, where the president sets the tone on foreign policy and national security.

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Nor is it about the Syrian army’s use of chemical weapons, although Obama’s oft-repeated statements over the past year—that the use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line,” would be a “game-changer,” and that Bashar al-Assad would be “held accountable”—have put him in a situation where he had to do something, lest he lose credibility on other pledges and threats. True, U.S. intelligence agencies have firmed up their conclusion that the traces of sarin gas can be traced to Assad’s regime—but their verdict was pretty firm several weeks ago.

Fundamentally, Obama’s shift is about balance-of-power politics. His deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, said as much at the June 14 White House press conference where he announced the new policy. The decision to provide “dramatically increased assistance” to the armed rebels took hold, he said, “as we saw a deteriorating situation in general, with outside actors like Iran and Hezbollah getting involved.”

Rhodes did not specify what kinds of weapons Obama will provide; Obama himself may not yet know. “This is a fluid situation,” Rhodes said, “so it’s necessary … to consult with all the leaders” of the pro-rebel alliance, in Europe and the Middle East, about “the types of support.”

But it is clear that, whatever gets shipped, weapons are only part—and perhaps not the most important part—of the package. Speaking of the rebel forces, Rhodes said it was important to “strengthen their cohesion,” to turn these “disparate groups of opposition fighters in different parts of the country” into an “organized opposition.”

In other words, he’s talking about command and control, communications, intelligence, logistics—the connective tissues of warfare, which only an outside professional military power can provide.

This tissue is political as well as military. As Rhodes put it, “We want to connect [the rebels] to us, but also to our other partners who are providing assistance,” including Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Turkey. All those countries want to help the rebels—if just to stave off the expansionist ambitions of Iran—but they have shown little knack for working together on such matters, or for agreeing on a leader and ceding authority to him. The United States can be that coordinating leader. Some of Obama’s critics ridicule this as “leading from behind,” but sometimes, for example in Libya, it can work.

What is Obama’s endgame in this? That’s less clear, or rather it’s not clear whether the endgame, as Rhodes articulated it, is feasible. At his press conference, Rhodes put it this way: “We still continue to discuss with the Russians whether there is a way to bring together elements of the [Assad] regime and the opposition to achieve a political settlement.”