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Obama proceeds cautiously in Syria, for good reason

President Obama has drawn plenty of criticism for his position on aiding Syrian rebels in light of his acknowledgement that the Assad regime has crossed his “red line” by using chemical weapons. Here is the key part of the administration’s response to that development:

[T]he President has augmented the provision of non-lethal assistance to the civilian opposition, and also authorized the expansion of our assistance to the Supreme Military Council (SMC), and we will be consulting with Congress on these matters in the coming weeks.

Charles Krauthammer promptly slammed the administration. With Hezbollah soon to be “amassing outside Aleppo” Obama’s response is to “add chicken to the tuna we’re giving them in the food aid,” Krauthammer mocked. Max Boot was also critical, though less derisive.

I find the administration’s approach reasonable. As Barry Rubin and others have shown, the Syrian rebels are dominated by Islamic extremists. Thus, arming them is fraught with peril, including the likelihood that the weapons we supply will end up in the hands of terrorists, to be turned against Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, or U.S. diplomats.

This reality leaves us with no good choices. But there are two bad outcomes we may be able to prevent: (1) a victory by Assad/Hezbollah/Iran over the rebels and (2) U.S. arms falling into the hands of our Islamist enemies.

The difficulty consists of avoiding both outcomes. For it may be that without providing arms to rebels, the Assad-Hezbollah forces will prevail.

But we don’t know that yet. Rubin notes that “the government is merely holding the northwest area (where the ruling Alawite group lives), the region along the Lebanese border (with Hizballah’s help), Damascus (where the best troops are based and there is a favorable strategic situation in the army holding the high ground), and part of Aleppo.” According to Rubin, if the regime presses much further, “it will stretch its resources thin and face a successful rebel counteroffensive.”

Under these circumstances, the administration is wise to hold back and keep its options open. Achieving the twin goals of avoiding an Assad victory and keeping dangerous weapons out of Islamist hands requires a sound assessment of the facts on the ground and the level of support needed to alter these facts to the degree necessary to keep Assad at bay.

The facts on the ground are constantly changing. But once the U.S. provides weapons to the rebels, we can’t take them back. Thus, the administration’s desire to make important decisions about aiding rebels on “our timetable” makes sense, as long as time isn’t running out.

Under my analysis, the best U.S. options for aiding the rebels are America-centric — e.g., a no-fly zone and strategic air attacks on Assad/Hezbollah assets. The Obama administration probably disfavors these options because they put the U.S. in the fight. It would prefer to let the rebels do all of the fighting with the U.S. giving them non-lethal aid and, if things continue to degenerate, relatively small arms.

But that level of assistance may not help. And it seems like a weak response to the crossing of a “red line,” however ill-advised it was of Obama to draw it.

Accordingly, I do have reservations about where the administration may be going. But I think Obama is right to proceed cautiously and to keep his options open.

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