Syrian Balancing Act

So the “red line’s” been crossed and the U.S. is now intervening in the Syrian civil war in a much more forceful manner:

President Barack Obama authorized his administration to provide arms to rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, officials said Thursday, a major policy shift after the White House said it had confirmed that Damascus used chemical weapons in the country’s civil war.

The classified order directing the Central Intelligence Agency to coordinate arming the rebels in concert with its allies reverses a long-standing policy that limited the U.S. to providing nonlethal support.

The White House declined to comment on the authorization, saying only that Mr. Obama had decided to ramp up “military support” to moderate rebels both in “scope and scale.”

U.S. officials also told The Wall Street Journal on Thursday that the U.S. military proposal for arming the rebels also calls for a limited no-fly zone inside Syria that would be enforced by U.S. and allied planes on Jordanian territory to protect Syrian refugees and rebels who would train there.

But while evidence of past use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government is the trigger for the new policy, it’s current events on the ground that have motivated its immediate implementation, reports the New York Times:

A flurry of high-level meetings in Washington this week underscored the divisions within the Obama administration about what actions to take in Syria to stop the fighting. The meetings were hastily arranged after Mr. Assad’s troops, joined by thousands of fighters from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, claimed the strategic city of Qusayr and raised fears in Washington that large parts of the rebellion could be on the verge of collapse.

Doesn’t sound too promising, does it? A late and limited intervention in a civil war that pits a brutal regime backed by Iran and Hezbollah against an insurgency that includes a large al Qaeda-affiliated faction. At home the administration will face an intensified version of the swirling criticism it encountered in the Libya intervention, with no one particularly happy about the level and timing of U.S. assistance, and a Republican opposition in Washington united in nothing other than its disdain for the administration and its alert search for the next Benghazi! Whether it has been the right policy or not, the president’s reluctance to intervene is understandable, if only because he finds himself in the familiar position of aiming at the mitigation of a disaster, which is never the stuff of high approval ratings and shouts of Hail to the Chief!

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.