Red line!! RED LINE!!! RED LINE!!!!:
The Obama administration, concluding that the troops of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria have used chemical weapons against rebel forces in his country’s civil war, has decided to begin supplying the rebels for the first time with small arms and ammunition, according to American officials.
The officials held out the possibility that the assistance, coordinated by the Central Intelligence Agency, could include antitank weapons, but they said that for now supplying the antiaircraft weapons that rebel commanders have said they sorely need is not under consideration....
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....
[T]he president’s caution has frayed relations with important American allies in the Middle East that have privately described the White House strategy as feckless. Saudi Arabia and Jordan recently cut the United States out of a new rebel training program, a decision that American officials said came from the belief in Riyadh and Amman that the United States has only a tepid commitment to supporting rebel groups....
A flurry of high-level meetings in Washington this week underscored the divisions within the Obama administration about what actions to take in Syria to stop the fighting. The meetings were hastily arranged after Mr. Assad’s troops, joined by thousands of fighters from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, claimed the strategic city of Qusayr and raised fears in Washington that large parts of the rebellion could be on the verge of collapse....
Until now, the American support to Syrian rebels has been limited to food rations and medical kits, although the Obama administration has quietly encouraged Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey to ship weapons into the country. The limited assistance that the Obama administration is now promising is likely to be dwarfed by the help that American officials said Iran provides to Mr. Assad’s government.
Naturally, this will feed the "return of the liberal hawks" meme that's spreading in some quarters. Other commentators will gnash their teeth or decry that this is the first ill-considered step towards dragging the United States into another Middle Eastern war.
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.
The moment that U.S. armed forces would be required to sustain the balance, the costs of this policy go up dramatically, far outweighing the benefits. So I suspect the Obama administration will continue to pursue all measures short of committing U.S. forces in any way in order to sustain the rebels.
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. What it's not, however, is a return to liberal hawkery.
So, to conclude: the United States is using a liberal internationalist rubric to cloak a pretty realist policy towards Syria.
Am I missing anything?
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.