This is the time when every second-term president starts thinking about his legacy. But what a mixed one it’s going to be for President Obama. After his decision to start arming the opposition in Syria, it looks like historians will profile Obama as the man who stopped two wars in the Middle East – and then started a third one. Is that really how he wants to be remembered?
Obviously not. Getting involved in Syria was clearly something President Obama did not want to do. He held off as long as he could. Give him credit for that. But, having boxed himself in by vowing to respond with some show of force if Syria crossed “the red line” by using chemical weapons, Obama had no choice but to take the next step – even if it was the baby step of sending in small weapons only.
There are no two sides in Syria. It’s clear. Bashar al Assad is a brutal dictator, one of the last in the region, who will do anything, including shooting, bombing and gassing his own people, in order to cling to power. His bloody crackdown on what began as nonviolent protests has been going on since March 2011. By the end of April 2013, according to the United Nations, the resulting civil war had already cost 92,901 civilian deaths.
Yet the question of intervention in Syria is a lot more complicated. What the United States can do about Syria remains murky, even after Obama’s latest decision. Why, for starters, did we do nothing about Syria for two years while almost 93,000 people were killed by conventional weapons, yet suddenly decide to arm the opposition when we learned 150 people were killed by chemical weapons? And why act now, when it looks as though the tables have turned and the rebels are being forced to retreat?
However the administration tries to justify it, military intervention in Syria is a serious mistake. The situation in Syria is a lot more complicated than Egypt or Libya. Syria’s a powerful nation with a large, well-trained and well-equipped military. President Assad has the support of Russia, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iran, which has already responded to Obama’s decision by sending 4,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guards to Syria. Civil war in Syria could easily escalate into a regional Middle East war, if it hasn’t already.
Military experts also acknowledge there’s no way to guarantee that weapons we dispatch will only get into the hands of the “good guys” among the opposition. In theory, we’re sending arms to the secular forces represented by the Free Syrian Army. But they’re losing ground, while the more powerful al-Nusrah Front, Syria’s al-Qaida front, is gaining territory. Will Syria end up another Afghanistan where we overthrow one unfriendly regime only to install new enemies of the United States?
Meanwhile, nobody pretends that sending small arms to the opposition will end the violence in Syria, or even shorten it. It may, in fact, have the opposite effect of prolonging the violence, causing even more civilian deaths and giving government forces the upper hand. Unless, of course, we send in heavier arms. And there’s the rub.
Let’s be honest. The United States will never get by with the promise of limiting our involvement in Syria to the provision of small arms only. No sooner was the announcement of small weapons made by the White House than rebels in Syria began requesting bigger and more powerful weapons. And in Congress, super-hawk John McCain is already accusing the president of not doing enough. He’s demanding that Obama do more: send armor-piercing and anti-aircraft weapons, send in air strikes, establish a no-fly zone. Once we’re “in for a penny,” we’ll soon be “in for a pound.” It’s only a matter of time.
What we really need is a vigorous public debate on whether or not we should intervene in Syria. But that’s sadly lacking for two reasons, because most Democrats are hesitant to challenge President Obama (if this were George Bush, they would be raising hell) and because President Obama himself doesn’t want to talk about it. He didn’t personally announce the decision to supply small arms, and he has not yet addressed the nation to explain why our use of military force in Syria is necessary to protect and defend the United States. Why? Because he can’t make that case. Nobody can.