As my colleague Ian descibed last week, the Obama administration’s Syria policy again came under fire after outgoing Defense Secretary Panetta revealed that top level administration support in favor of arming the Syrian opposition was overruled by the President and the White House. Critics of the President’s handling of the Syrian conflict seized on this as another example of him leading from behind and being overly cautious when it comes to using U.S. power to influence events and outcomes during the Arab uprisings. Some commentators even went as far as to say that the Obama administration had over learned the lessons of the Iraq war to a point of paralysis, and that the time to arm the Syrian rebels is now.
While the Obama administration has been criticized for its lack of action in Syria, there is little argument against the administration’s stated policy objective of ending the Assad regime through a transition to a peaceful, inclusive, and democratic Syria, where the rights of all Syrians are protected. What is unclear, however, is how a strategy of arming and supporting one faction in Syria’s civil war would somehow achieve this stated objective. Such a strategy would resemble the one currently being employed by Iran as it continues to arm and equip Shiite and Alawite proxy forces. This strategy makes sense for the Iranians because it supports their objective of keeping Syria divided in order to maintain influence once the regime falls and keep open its gateway to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Similarly, Turkish and Qatari support for the Syrian opposition forces has also resulted in keeping Syria divided, most recently in the country’s northeast where opposition and Kurdish forces have engaged in repeated clashes.
Contrary to what proponents of intervention say, the interference of neighboring countries in Syria’s internal affairs very much resembles what happened during Iraq’s civil war, and the U.S. would be wise not to repeat its same mistakes. The U.S. should not militarily assist another group of exiles from a majority sect take power from an oppressive regime controlled by a minority sect.
If the Obama administration’s goal is to convince Alawites, Christians, Kurds, and Shiites to unite against the Assad regime, it does not make sense to arm the Syrian opposition who these groups view as the biggest threat to their future in a post-Assad Syria. A more logical strategy is the encouragement of reconciliation between the factions, which is precisely what the administration did last week when Vice-President Biden endorsed Syrian opposition leader Moaz Al-Khatib’s overture toward Assad to enter into conditional negotiations. While there are many obstacles precluding a successful agreement, it is better to continue to try to hammer out those issues now while all sides still have an incentive to compromise and pursue some level of national reconciliation.
Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.