Civilians in Aleppo, Syria's largest city, search for survivors… (Aleppo Media Center / Associated…)
In my Sunday column, I argued that events are pushing President Obama toward a bigger role in aiding rebel forces in Syria’s civil war -- not direct military intervention, perhaps, but certainly more direct help for the insurgents. Yes, I wrote, it’s a slippery slope, but the U.S. interests in that part of the world are so great that it's dangerous to stand by.
But wait, readers responded; what about all the reasons getting involved in Syria would be dangerous?
In the view of the Obama administration, those objections appear to be eroding. Obama’s point man on Syria, Ambassador Robert Ford, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week and dismissed many of the objections that have been raised against sending weapons to the rebels. A year ago, Ford acknowledged, the United States didn’t know much about who the rebels were; but now, he said, “there are good people that we could work with,” including Brig. Gen. Salam Idris, the rebel coalition’s military commander. And where the United States once couldn’t be sure whether its aid might fall into the wrong hands, Ford said, officials now believe they have ways to monitor where the supplies go.
When Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) asked Ford to explain why the United States should get involved in another messy Middle Eastern conflict, Ford listed a series of strategic reasons -- not humanitarianism or democracy promotion. First, he said, there’s the issue of what happens to Syria’s chemical weapons if Bashar Assad’s regime collapses. There’s the prospect that Syria could turn into a safe haven for terrorists allied with Al Qaeda. And Syria’s war is causing real problems for its neighbors, including three major U.S. allies: Turkey, Israel and Jordan.
If all that weren’t enough, another witness, former Obama advisor Dennis Ross, added another: U.S. hesitance in Syria, he said, is sending the wrong message to the rulers of Iran, who are backing Assad's regime.
“There is a relationship between what’s happening in Syria and Iran,” Ross said. “We want very much to convince the Iranians to change their behavior, not just on Syria but on the nuclear issue. And one of the problems we have at this point is [that] they don’t believe that we will actually use force.
“The irony here is, if you want diplomacy to succeed, they actually have to believe we’re going to use force,” Ross said. “Our hesitancy in Syria, I think, plays to their perception that we won’t. So the more we’re prepared to do in Syria, the more I think we actually may affect the Iranian calculus in terms of the nuclear issues as well.”
Obama has shown no eagerness to get involved in Syria during its two years of increasingly violent unrest. But Iran is another matter; the president and his aides are bent on doing whatever it takes to persuade Tehran to suspend its nuclear enrichment program without starting another war. If Ross’ argument about a “demonstration effect” takes hold, deeper U.S. involvement in Syria could come faster than anyone expects.
McManus: Ratcheting up in Syria
Framework: Portraits of Syrian rebels
McManus: Inching toward entanglement in Syria