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Theater of the Absurd: Obama and the Debate over Syria

The radical Islamists are better-organized, better-trained, and, while possibly numerically less, better-positioned to expand their influence and hence take over Syria if the Assad regime collapses. And the Nusra Front, by all accounts, is currently the most effective and best-armed of all the rebel groups. Hence even the true moderate forces see the need for joining with them in a coalition, a tactic that ensures the moderates' eventual defeat in case of victory against the Assad armed forces. And it does not offer confidence that Kerry, when challenged by opponents in Congress who had doubts about Kerry’s belief that the moderates are gaining strength, based his answer that they are doing well on the views of a young, compromised “journalist” named Elizabeth O’Bagy.

The Reuters dispatch quotes the views of former intelligence analyst Joshua Foust, who says, "I've heard that there are moderate groups out there we could, in theory, support, but I've heard from those same people and my own contacts within (U.S. intelligence) that the scary people are displacing more and more moderate groups. Basically, the jihadists are setting up governance and community councils while the moderates exhaust themselves doing the heavy fighting.’” Most disturbing, Foust reports that four out of five commanders of the moderate Supreme Military Council of the rebel groups threatened to resign because they want to work with “all forces” fighting Assad, meaning the Nusra Front run by al-Qaeda.

Another European official also notes that while the forces in the east are perhaps more moderate than those in the south, they have broken up into gangs involved in enriching themselves. And today, Reuters reports that “the chief of staff of Germany's armed forces, General Volker Wieker, also told lawmakers the influence of al-Qaeda linked forces with within the rebels was becoming stronger and stronger.”

So much for the argument presented last week by John Kerry. This evidence undercuts the case made by Cantor as well, since he argues the al-Qaeda is fighting the moderate groups in Syria, and that more jihadists will join the extremists unless we strike. If foreign intelligence is to be believed, such as that from German sources, they already have done just that.

How, then, will continued U.S. inaction undermine moderate forces, who seem to have already lost so much ground that their case seems rather hopeless? For the U.S. to come to their aid, as Cantor argues, would necessitate something much greater than the limited action President Obama has called for up to now.

So far, what the president has called for is anything but the kind of strike that will hurt the Assad regime’s military capacity. Moreover, he has not stated any post-attack plan that would entail not only real support to confirmed actual moderate groups, but also some kind of U.S. effort that could reinforce their strength and position them to win against both Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist elements, if indeed those do exist.

If no real plan exists -- and Obama has not given us any evidence that it does -- what Fareed Zakaria writes will be the outcome. “It will find it extremely difficult,” he writes, “to keep its actions limited in a volatile situation. And were it to succeed in ousting Assad, it would be implicated in the next phase of this war, which would almost certainly lead to chaos and the slaughter or ethnic cleansing of the Alawite sect (to which Assad belongs) and perhaps of other minorities, as happened in Iraq.”

So the old foreign-policy divisions have been swept away with the wind. Who would have thought that the hawkish position would be advanced by Nancy Pelosi and John Kerry, and that Republicans in both the House and Senate would be leading the opponents of intervention?

And as the president has learned, many in his own party have doubts and are not anxious to support him. This is no longer the '90s, when a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, launched air strikes in the Balkans and fired cruise missiles in Iraq and Afghanistan without congressional support. Barack Obama, too, said he could act and would act without going to Congress, only to change his mind at the last minute, undercut Secretary of State Kerry’s speech arguing for immediate and forceful action, and then throw the decision to Congress.

His deputy national security advisor told the press a few days ago that if Congress votes no, the president would not go against them. At the European press conference, Obama said his deputy did not exactly say what he actually had said. That, of course, was no answer. No wonder many believe that the president hopes for a no vote and that Congress will give him the out he really wants, so he can resume being the anti-war chief executive he promised the Left he would be.

So we wait for Obama, and for what message he actually will give to the American people on Tuesday night. No wonder it appears as if we are living in the Theater of the Absurd.