Obama to Consider Deeper Involvement in Syria’s Civil War

The president meets with senior national security officials to discuss his options in Syria.

Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama speak with national-security staff members at the White House in Washington DC, September 11, 2012
Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama speak with national-security staff members at the White House in Washington DC, September 11, 2012 (White House/Pete Souza)

Steady military advances by loyalist forces against rebel units across Syria have once again forced the Obama Administration and its European allies to consider arming an insurgency that is desperate for reinforcements.

Senior American national-security officials are scheduled to meet with the president at the White House in Washington DC on Wednesday to discuss the Syrian crisis, a meeting advocates for intervention hope will result in a mass supply of arms and ammunition to those seeking to topple Bashar Assad’s government.

Members of the administration will reportedly consider a range of options to bolster the rebel forces, from providing more sophisticated weaponry to moderate opposition factions to launching a discriminate campaign of airstrikes that would target Syria’s fleet of fighter jets and helicopters. A no-fly zone over territory that is controlled by the opposition is still being viewed as a distant option, given the amount of risk that American pilots would face from Syria’s relatively modern, Russian air defenses.

Whichever option Obama decides to pursue, it would be a significant and dramatic shift in American policy. For the first time in the conflict, the United States would be seen as taking an active and firm role on the side of the rebellion; a shift that could very well persuade Arab and European countries to scale up their own assistance to rebel units.

American intervention of some kind would also raise alarm in Iran and Russia which have been the primary suppliers of Syria’s military and hope to prevent a victory by the increasingly radicalized Sunni opposition.

Whether or not President Obama signs off on weapons transfers or airstrikes will ultimately be based on an assessment of Assad’s staying power. The capture of the small city of Qusayr by government troops and Lebanese Hezbollah militants after roughly seventeen days of mortar attacks, shelling and street fighting has done more to shore up the regime’s position than the previous six months of operations. The government’s capture of this town, situated on a vital smuggling route for the insurgency, dealt the rebels a heavy blow. But more importantly for the regime, the counterattack in Qusayr appears to have had a positive effect on the morale and confidence of Assad’s forces, military and paramilitary alike.

How best to reverse the Syrian government’s momentum will be the key topic of debate at the White House meeting. Pressured by lawmakers who are lobbying for a more assertive leadership role in the crisis, Obama and his foreign-policy advisors face a situation where their Syria policy of ushering Bashar Assad out of power is in danger of failing. For a president who takes his foreign policy accomplishments seriously, the possibility of a dictator withstanding a nationwide rebellion, in part due to lackluster American support, would reflect poorly on his legacy and be prime meat for his political opponents.

The Obama Administration isn’t interested in thrusting its way into another civil war in an Arab country. The chemical weapons “red line” that Obama set for intervention has likely been crossed, if a minor scale, yet even those reports did not change his, understandably cautious, approach to the conflict. The confluence of recent developments may finally push the president over the edge.