Stay Cautious on Syria

Obama is right to be reluctant when it comes to entanglement in Syria.

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News broke this week that Syrian dictator Bashar Assad potentially launched a massive chemical attack on his own people, in the latest horrifying turn in Syria's civil war. Such an attack, if verified, would be yet another serious violation of the Obama administration's now infamous "red line" when it comes to the war-torn Middle Eastern country.

Inevitably, calls for the Obama administration to get more involved in the conflict followed. The Washington Post's hawkish editorial board wrote today that, if reports of a chemical attack are true, "Obama should deliver on his vow not to tolerate such crimes – by ordering direct U.S. retaliation against the Syrian military forces responsible and by adopting a plan to protect civilians in southern Syria with a no-fly zone." Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has never seen a Middle East conflict in which he did not want the U.S. embroiled, began beating the war drum again. Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., upbraided the administration for continuing to " stand on the sidelines."

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

But nothing about the complications regarding U.S. intervention in Syria has changed. There isn't a clearer picture of who the rebels really are or whether it would be in the U.S. interest to back them. There is still no guarantee that any arms supplied to the Syrian rebels wouldn't wind up in the hands of actors who would aim to do the U.S. harm. And there's certainly no guarantee that direct military intervention would be beneficial to U.S. interests.

As Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in a letter to Engel:

Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides. It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not. The crisis in Syria is tragic and complex. It is a deeply rooted, long-term conflict among multiple factions, and violent struggles for power will continue after Assad's rule ends. We should evaluate the effectiveness of limited military options in this context.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

Indeed, getting involved in the Syrian conflict means getting into the middle of a bloody, sectarian civil war that will likely continue long after Assad is gone, not simply protecting civilians who are under assault. Time and time again, the U.S. has tried to intervene in such conflicts; it rarely ends well. Just look at what happened in Iraq: the bloodiest phase of the war was after the dictator targeted by the U.S. was already out of the picture, when sectarian bloodletting ran rampant.

The administration's response, so far, has been to condemn the attack, and not much else. And that's as it should be. As much as the hawks may want to believe otherwise, Obama can't wave a magic wand and have world events bend to his will (much like he can't use magic powers to somehow make Republicans less intransigent here at home).

Syria – like Egypt, another nation where Obama is being blamed for not single-handedly preventing violence – is a complicated country, with long-standing hatreds based on religion and tribe running beneath the current bloodshed. Obama is right to tread cautiously, lest the U.S. get dragged into another Middle East misadventure from which it can't escape.