A day after Bill Clinton said staying out of Syria is a mistake and called for greater American intervention, the White House announced President Barack Obama has concluded that Bashar Assad has used chemical weapons, including sarin nerve gas, against his own people and it is time to begin arming the rebels.
But after more than a year of hesitation while his State Department, Pentagon and CIA have urged a more robust involvement, Obama’s decision could be too little too late.
The regime, with a continuing flow of weapons from Iran and fighters from Hizbollah, appears to have turned the tide against the outgunned and disorganized rebels in recent weeks.
Part of Obama’s hesitation in arming the rebels is figuring out who the bad guys are and making sure the guns don’t fall into the wrong hands.
In this war not all the bad guys are on the same side. There is no question that President Bashar Assad is one bad dude, but that doesn’t make the opposition – with a large Islamic extremist, al Qaida and jihadi presence — the good guys. Some — not all — are just as bad, and could possibly be much worse.
The opposition is deeply divided and some elements are as guilty as the regime when it comes to committing atrocities. The militarily most effective and politically best organized rebels appear to be the Islamic extremists and al Qaida allies who want to establish Syrian Islamic republic. If they succeed, the new Syria, likely to be badly splintered and chaotic, could be a far greater threat to Israel and the rest of the neighborhood than Assad.
Obama had said proof that Assad used WMD would be the game changer that would convince him to provide military aid to the rebels. He is starting cautiously with small arms and ammunition while the rebels say what they really need is antitank and antiaircraft weapons. Obama is very reluctant to supply antiaircraft missiles, and he has definitely ruled out US boots on the ground and appears unlikely to agree to set up a no-fly zone, at least for now.
Behind the president’s reluctance are two compelling factors: a war-weary American public and the possibility that the post-Assad government will pledge its loyalty to al Qaida.
Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor, told reporters in a conference call Thursday afternoon that the intelligence community has come to the conclusion that the Assad regime “has used chemical weapons,” killing 100-150 people. The United Nations said this week that the death toll has reached 93,000, with many times that number wounded.
Rhodes avoided specifics, saying only the United States and the intelligence community have a range of “legal, financial, diplomatic and military responses available.”
Rhodes said the regime has control of chemical weapons arsenal, and there is no evidence that the opposition has acquired any.
Iran has been flying planeloads of weapons to Syria and Washington’s erstwhile ally Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has allowed them free passage across his country’s air space in defiance of U.S. requests to stop helping Assad and Iran.
France and Britain recently persuaded the EU to lift its ban on arms to rebels. Neither of those countries has announced plans to begin arming the opposition, however. Look for more to come out of next week’s G8 meeting of world leaders in London.