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The Obama Administration and Syria: A Situation with No Good Choices Available

The administration finally acknowledged, in a press release issued by Deputy National Security Adviser for strategic communications Ben Rhodes, that the U.S. now believes that on two occasions Assad has used the chemical agent sarin on the civilian population. So the so-called “red line” that Barack Obama said Bashar Assad would not be permitted to cross has been crossed.

Some conservatives, like Max Boot, are not happy. “That’s it?,” he writes. “No announcement of air strikes on chemical-weapons stockpiles or other government targets. No imposition of a no-fly zone. Not even an announcement that emergency shipments of arms would be rushed to the rebels.”

The result will be—as we have seen---an increased level of rhetoric, plus skimpily promised statements that we will increase arms shipments to Syrian rebels. With over 90,000 dead (more by some estimates), the ranks of those clamoring for intervention to stop the Syrian regime from more slaughter are increasing.

Perhaps if Barack Obama had acted two years ago, when Syria’s rebels were spontaneously emerging from the oppressed populace and were not dominated by radical Islamists and the ranks of al-Qaeda, it might have done some good.  Now, when to give the rebels arms means backing one group of fanatical Islamists against another, a victory for the rebels would make things no better for the Syrian people than would the victory of Assad.

This is one of the rare times I agree with the political philosopher Michael Walzer, who said in an interview with The Times of Israel that “now you have jihadi fighters on the one hand and Hezbollah on the other, and it really doesn’t look like there’s much to choose between. It’s almost impossible to describe a desirable outcome in this civil war, and if you don’t have a desirable outcome — you can’t intervene.”

Walzer’s rules for intervening should be taken seriously by the likes of John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman, who continue to advocate intervening on behalf of Assad’s opponents. Walzer argues that if the U.S. were to intervene, the following conditions should be prerequisites:

Firstly, the US must “pick a winner” and make sure he is capable of governing Syria; secondly, the US must secure Assad’s weapons arsenal and prevent it from leaking into neighboring countries; and finally the new (presumably) Sunni government must guarantee the physical safety of the country’s minorities: Alawites, Druze, Christians and Kurds.

And these conditions cannot be met simply by establishing no-fly zones. They require American and European troops, something that the American population will not support and that NATO will not back, unlike when Bill Clinton was president and the bombing campaign against the Serb government  took place to stop the slaughter of the Bosnian people by the Serbian military.

As for former President Clinton, he fired the first shot in his wife’s forthcoming presidential campaign when he told a conference organized by Senator McCain that Obama should act more forcefully to aid the anti-Assad rebels. He argued the American public elected presidents “to see down the road and to win.” Speaking at a closed event (Clinton said he did not realize his remarks were being recorded), he said Obama risked looking like a “total fool” if he listened too closely to public-opinion polls and acted too cautiously.