Slowly but steadily, the United States (scratch that, Washington, DC) is talking itself into a deeper involvement in Syria's civil war. There are already reports indicating that the U.S. is taking an active hand in determining which Syrian rebel groups will receive shipments of weapons purchased by Gulf allies. The CIA has reportedly been training "secular" fighters in Jordan to send into the fray.
All the while, the Obama administration has been goaded ever-deeper by a series of dubious arguments about U.S. involvement in Syria's civil war. Four, in particular, have surfaced frequently.
1. It's in America's national security interest
The argument goes something like this: "This regime in Syria serves as the main forward operating base of the Iranian regime in the heart of the Arab world. It has supported Palestinian terrorist groups and funneled arms of all kinds, including tens of thousands of rockets, to Hezbollah in Lebanon. It remains a committed enemy of Israel." That was Senator John McCain, writing in the The New Republic.
Topple Assad, the theory goes, and Iran loses an ally, Israel an enemy and Hezbollah a critical patron. So far, so reasonable, even if the connection to U.S. security is tenuous.
But all of the benefits that supposedly accrue from toppling Assad only occur if Syria is able to reconstitute itself into a stable, secure government that rejects Iranian goals and prevents al-Qaeda cells from spawning in its midst. What are the odds of that?
At the moment, they appear bleak. No international peacekeeping force, not even a regional one, is poised to enter Syria to police it when and if the Assad regime crumbles. As the U.S. learned in Iraq, it takes well over 100,000 troops and the cooperation of vital sections of the population to adequately pacify a country cleaved by civil war -- and even then, violence and disorder remain potent forces.
It's always possible that the various militia groups waging war against Assad will decide to lay down their arms and cooperate to form a government that can successfully police all of Syria, but that appears to be a long shot. What appears more likely to happen is that U.S. arms and interference will accelerate Syria's collapse into a failed state. In such an environment, there will not only be ample opportunities for Iran to preserve, if not extend, its influence, but there will be newfound threats to U.S. security including the establishment of additional safe havens for al-Qaeda-aligned jihadist groups. That's a net-negative for U.S. strategic interests.
2. America has a moral obligation to stop the bloodshed
Aside from the supposed strategic imperative, the administration is being scolded for its supposed indifference to the human toll Syria's war has taken on the country's civilian population. No one can argue that Syria's bloodshed has been appalling and U.S. efforts to fund medical care and housing for refugees is certainly appropriate. But the argument that arming rebel groups will result in a net-gain for the Syrian population again rests on dubious assumptions.
First, it imagines that arming the rebels (i.e., improving their ability to kill Assad's forces) will result in a reduction of violence. Maybe, but maybe not. It could simply produce greater carnage without decisively tipping the scales toward the rebels. Moreover, a Syrian civil war that ends in complete chaos and anarchy in Syria in which ethnic cleansing and population displacement occurs is hardly a moral outcome.
The second, related problem is the arbitrary nature of the obligation. If arms are sent into Syria on the premise that it is a moral obligation, how far does that obligation extend? If the arm shipments fail to stem the bloodshed, then shouldn't Washington enforce a no-fly zone or insert its own forces to defend Syria's beleaguered civilians? Justifying an intervention on moral terms implies a deepening commitment that the U.S. cannot materially fulfill.
Ultimately, Washington's first moral obligation is to the health and safety of its own citizens. If an intervention in Syria does not advance that first obligation and cannot decisively make things better, it's difficult to see why it should be undertaken at all.
3. We need the "good guys" to win
The Obama administration has been urged to arm rebel factions lest "bad guys" (i.e., jihadists) should gain the upper hand. "There is a competition now in Syria between moderate forces (and) the al-Qaida types," Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "It is very important that we weigh in."