Friday, June 14, 2013

Did Obama just cross a Rubicreek in Syria?

Just how much of a game changer was the Obama administration's announcement yesterday that it would start providing lethal aid to selected Syrian rebels?  This was one case where the feints and false starts in the news-breaking process suggest that there may have been less of a departure from existing policy than meets the eye. At least, that's what my absorption of the news over an evening and morning suggested to me.

At around 4:45 ET yesterday, a short item in the WSJ Online reported rather ambiguously about a U.S. "proposal" to establish a no-fly zone in a strategic 25-mile sliver of Syria, at the Jordanian border.  The wording immediately raised the question, who was proposing to whom?
  1. "proposes" to whom? Is this a plan/option or a decided-upon course of action?

As the WSJ story accrued new paragraphs a few minutes later, it was looking awfully like certain sources were trying to create a reality:

Military planners believe it would be dangerous to set up a major operation inside Jordan to arm the rebels without creating a no-fly zone to hold Syrian aircraft back.

"Unless you have a good buffer zone inside Syria, you risk too much," said a U.S. official briefed on the military proposal.
Meanwhile, McCain was getting ahead of Obama, announcing before the administration did that the U.S. would arm the rebels.

Enter reliable narrator Laura Rozen, reading the tea leaves, accurately anticipating studied vagueness  in an upcoming administration briefing of multiple reporters, to be followed by details filled in exclusively to the Times:
They didn't say only non-lethal aid. Bet NYT will have background on what's on list. Lot of this warning to RUSS, cover to UK/FR@shadihamid
Rozen views the step-up -- small arms provision to selected rebels -- as an incremental and minimalist step, mollifying allies and warning the Russians. She could see early that rumors were inflating the extent of the step-up and anticipated that there would be less to Obama's reaction to the crossing of his red line than early reports indicated.

Maybe it's confirmation bias on my part, but Daniel Drezner seems to me to have got hold of Occam's Razor:
To your humble blogger, this is simply the next iteration of the unspoken, brutally realpolitik policy towards Syria that's been going on for the past two years.  To recap, the goal of that policy is to ensnare Iran and Hezbollah into a protracted, resource-draining civil war, with as minimal costs as possible.  This is exactly what the last two years have accomplished.... at an appalling toll in lives lost

This policy doesn't require any course correction... so long as rebels are holding their own or winning. A faltering Assad simply forces Iran et al into doubling down and committing even more resources.  A faltering rebel movement, on the other hand, does require some external support, lest the Iranians actually win the conflict.  In a related matter, arming the rebels also prevents relations with U.S. allies in the region from fraying any further.

So is this the first step towards another U.S.-led war in the region?  No.  Everything in that Times story, and everything this administration has said and done for the past two years, screams deep reluctance over intervention.  Arming the rebels is not the same thing as a no-fly zone or any kind of ground intervention.  This is simply the United States engaging in its own form of asymmetric warfare.  For the low, low price of aiding and arming the rebels, the U.S. preoccupies all of its adversaries in the Middle East. 
I suspect, though, that the 'realpolitik' is more defensive than offensive -- not glee at anyone's bleeding, but simply unwillingness to let adversaries win outright. One part I can vouch for: the "deep reluctance" "screaming" from the Times article:
Some senior State Department officials have been pushing for a more aggressive military response, including airstrikes to hit the primary landing strips in Syria that the Assad government uses to launch the chemical weapons attacks, ferry troops around the country and receive shipments of arms from Iran. 

But White House officials remain wary, and on Thursday Benjamin J. Rhodes, one of Mr. Obama’s top foreign policy advisers, all but ruled out the imposition of a no-fly zone and indicated that no decision had been made on other military actions.

Drezner considers the policy, if he's got it right, disturbingly cold-blooded -- with an important caveat:
Now let's be clear:  to describe this as "morally questionable" would be an understatement.  It's a policy that makes me very uncomfortable... until one considers the alternatives.
In mitigation, I would add that stopping Assad's momentum is probably the only way to keep the possibility of a negotiated settlement alive. That may be a thin reed indeed -- but again, what are the alternatives to pursuing it? Perhaps only staying out entirely, which would mean accepting from the beginning that Assad might succeed in brutally crushing the rebellion.  An outcome which, Hillary Clinton of all people once suggested, might not be the worst. I can't find the quote, but as I recall, when asked early on whether ousting Assad was desirable, she responded with words to the effect of, "it depends on what replaces him."

Update: based on past performance, Jonathan Bernstein kinda sorta expects Obama to keep the U.S. from getting sucked deep into Syria.

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