Yesterday’s surprise announcement by the White House that the US will “increase the scale and scope of assistance” to Syrian rebels comes at the worst possible time. Here’s why:
1.) Too Little/Too Late: Washington’s window of opportunity to alter the course of events in Syria has already come and gone. In fact, America’s ability to influence events on the ground in Syria is probably the lowest it has been since the conflict began. Even on the rare off-chance that the kind of military support the administration is thinking about tips the scale in favor of the rebels, Syrians (and the wider Arab world) are unlikely to thank us. Two years and 93,000 deaths into the conflict, many Syrians will instead resent the fact that it took Washington this long to act. By contrast, a rebel victory would see the Qataris and Saudis praised for their early support. In short, the US will get all of the blame and none of the credit.
2.) What Red Line? Even putting aside for a moment all of the problems associated with the use of publicly pronounced red lines (and there are many,) the administration’s claim that it is responding to the Assad regime’s violation of Obama’s December 2012 prohibition on the use of chemical weapons is flimsy at best.
The timing is odd and makes the US look indecisive. The Israelis announced back on April 23 they had proof the Syrian military had used chemical weapons. Even before the Israelis went public, however, the British and the French had already provided the UN with their own evidence in the form of soil samples. Obviously the US government had to evaluate the evidence itself before acting, but this is a process that typically takes days or weeks not months.
In fact, our own intelligence community concluded in late April that the Syrians had most likely used sarin nerve gas. Announcing what amounts to a major policy shift in mid-June while justifying the decision on the basis of activity that took place as far back as last year and has been public knowledge since at least April doesn’t quite add up. (Unless of course US officials never considered the possibility that deterrence might fail and had no strategy for dealing with such an eventuality; itself deeply troubling if true.)
Nevertheless, the White House’s assertion that it is intervening now because of Syria’s traversing of the red line is unlikely to convince anybody. Rather than redeem American credibility, the lesson other states are likely to draw is that (at least in the short term) they can get away with crossing well-established red lines while the US government conducts a multi-month internal policy debate on what to do next.
3.) Escalation. Paradoxically, and tragically, the US decision may actually lead to increased violence in Syria rather than halt the killings. This is because the US about-face comes in the wake of the conflict having already drawn in a number of other actors. If the US was going to intervene at all the best time to do so would have been before regional actors like Hezbollah got involved. Coming in the wake of a more crowded and increasingly sectarianized field, Washington’s room to maneuver is likely to be significantly reduced from what it once could have been. Hezbollah in particular will be emboldened by the news and will probably step up its involvement in the conflict, making any US exit down the road more difficult.
4.) Kiss Geneva Goodbye. Although the probability that Geneva II would produce a diplomatic solution was never high to begin with, Washington’s announcement yesterday has eroded what little possibility there was of securing an immediate cessation to the fighting. The Obama administration has not only rendered next month’s summit unnecessary, it has effectively put an end to what may have been the last best hope for the international community to stop the violence any time soon. If Washington’s primary aim is to stop the killing then even a temporary respite from the fighting would have been better than a continuation of the war, let alone the escalation that is now sure to follow.
5.) Schizophrenic US Foreign Policy. The sudden reversal by the administration is bound to leave our allies and enemies scratching their heads. For an administration that has prided itself on its handling of foreign policy yesterday’s policy shift stands in marked contrast to previous successes. And, at least domestically, the announcement will play right into the very narrative the Obama administration spent all last week trying to dispel; namely that the appointments of Susan Rice and Samantha Power as National Security Advisor and Ambassador to the UN mark an interventionist turn in US foreign policy.
In sum, even those who advocated for greater US involvement in Syria over the past year and are happy to see the Obama administration now doing so should be concerned by the timing and manner in which this policy decision has come about.