Obama and Neocons Seem Aligned in Pushing for Problematic Syrian Involvement

Shift in policy expected despite rise of Jihadist influences in the conflict.


Credit: FreedomHouse/flickr

The Obama Administration could soon announce a change in its policy toward Syria, the Washington Post reports. That change would likely include providing arms to some of President Basher Assad's opposition.

We knew something like this might be coming. While President Barack Obama had said he opposed plans–backed by then-CIA director David Petraeus, then-secretary of defense Leon Panetta, and then-secretary of state Hilary Clinton–to directly arm Syrian rebels, The New York Times reported earlier this month that the president was reconsidering that stance. If Obama commits the U.S. to arming Syrian rebels, it will be the latest example of Obama thinking and acting like a neoconservative.

Ann Coulter put this brand of neoconservatism on display recently during an appearance on Stossel, where she said that countries like Syria and Iran were good candidates for "regime change" and that support for "insurgents" should be considered. On the Hill, Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have been arguing that the U.S. should be arming the rebels in Syria, saying that doing so would weaken Iran's influence in the Middle East and hasten Assad's downfall.

Unfortunately for neoconservatives and other interventionists, recent news from Syria indicates that Al Qaeda-linked militants fighting against Assad are increasing in popularity and influence. While no one could reasonably argue for the moral legitimacy of the Assad regime, whose forces are responsible for the torture and mass killings of civilians, Islamic radicals are involved in the conflict, and it is not obvious that the sort of support neoconservatives would like to lend to the Syrian rebels would make safer America or the surrounding region. 

It would be unfair to characterize the neoconservative position as one that advocates for the arming jihadists in order to overthrow Assad at any cost. McCain has argued that the U.S. could help channel weapons to the rebels in Syria through "third world countries" and the Arab League. However, it is not clear that such a mechanism of delivering weapons would be able to avoid arms falling into the hands of jihadists, who some estimate make up almost a quarter of Assad's opposition. As evil as Assad is, his regime is being overthrown by a rebel force with a sizeable jihadist contingency that could use Syria as a base for future attacks against not only Shiite populations but also Europe and the U.S.

Aside from the concerns about the makeup of the Syrian rebels it is worth legislators considering the extent to which the conflict in Syria is affecting the region. Part of what is motivating lawmakers like McCain is concern over Iran's growing influence. The Syrian regime is one of Iran's most important strategic allies, and the involvement of Iranian forces in the conflict is strong evidence that Iran is very invested in Assad staying in power.

Aside from Iran, Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon are also reportedly involved in the Syrian conflict, fighting on the side of Assad with Iranian assistance. The involvement of Hezbollah fighters has prompted Israel to take a more direct role in the conflict, with Israeli fighters having carried out a strike on a convoy near the Lebanon-Syria border. In Syria's north, Kurds have become involved in the fighting, and Turkey responded to strikes on its territory back in October.

Even were we to accept that interventionist regime change is sometimes morally justified, the geopolitical and ideological complexity of the situation in Syria should remind American policy makers of how poorly past interventions have worked out in Iraq and Afghanistan, two other countries with complicated domestic situations. It should give interventionists like Senators McCain and Graham pause. Not only does the complexity of the Syrian conflict mean that it is unclear what a post-Assad Syria will look like, it is far from obvious that arming rebels in a conflict in the Middle East that involves opposing terrorist organizations, nationalists, and the influence of Lebanon, Iran, Turkey, and Israel will make American interests safer.

In his most recent State of the Union Address the president only mentioned Syria briefly, saying:

In the Middle East, we will stand with citizens as they demand their universal rights, and support stable transitions to democracy.  The process will be messy, and we cannot presume to dictate the course of change in countries like Egypt; but we can – and will – insist on respect for the fundamental rights of all people.  We will keep the pressure on a Syrian regime that has murdered its own people, and support opposition leaders that respect the rights of every Syrian.

While nothing specific was mentioned, the rhetoric in the speech would allow for the president to arm some Syrian rebels without being accused of hypocrisy. If the adminnistration is, as is expected, going to begin providing military support to some of the Syrian rebels Obama will want to avoid vindicating conservatives like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who distanced himself from Mitt Romney before the election, saying:

I do not, however, support a call for intervention in Syria. And, if such intervention were being contemplated, it is absolutely necessary that Congress give any such authority to the president. No president, Republican or Democrat, has the unilateral power to take our nation to war without the authority of the legislature.

An intervention in Syria would not be wise from an American national security perspective, but being against involvement in Syria does not imply that Assad should be in any way excused for the atrocities he has overseen. Although unpleasant elements exist within the Syrian opposition, they have only managed to become a threat to the region thanks to the tragic situation that Assad has allowed to develop. Had Assad decided to respond differently to protests back in early 2011 we would not be in a situation where American policymakers are considering arming an insurgency in a volatile and unpredictable part of the world that already has a tenuous relationship with American foreign policy.