As of this writing here’s a snapshot of U.S. policy on Syria:
The president in recent days has signed onto a communiqué pledging with G8 leaders to support a negotiated settlement while at the same time issuing classified orders to arm one side in the conflict.
The leading Republican on Syria made a surprise visit to the country to meet with the “good guys” among the rebels, only to get himself photographed with a bad guy, showing just how difficult it is to separate the two.
And now that all the experts have agreed the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against civilians, world leaders have asked the UN to make a recommendation on what to do.
Vladimir Putin: Score.
One had almost to admire the Russian president’s steel in Northern Ireland as the only head of state to emerge from the June G8 summit, where Syria dominated the agenda, with a clear position. Throughout the two-year war, Putin hasn’t wavered in support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, hasn’t denied sending weapons to him, even defended it forcefully against the back-door, undulating way the United States and Britain have tried to aid the opposition. “We are supplying weapons under legal contracts to the legal government,” Putin told his G8 counterparts.
For the United States choosing sides in Syria was never easy. Fighting on the side of the Assad government are Russia and Iran, and now Hezbollah. Be assured the Iranian ayatollahs and the Russian kleptocrats have hegemonic intent.
In the opposition corner are rebel groups with ties to al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremist groups backed by Saudi Arabia. They want to make Syria an Islamic beachhead next door to Israel—something the Assad regime opposes. And something the United States opposes, only we oppose Assad, so we support the rebels linked to the terrorists, well some of them, sort of.
Republicans have failed to untangle this muddle. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., made a surprise trip to Syria—the only high-level U.S. official to do so since the uprising began—to show his support for the Free Syrian Army, the “legitimate” fighting faction among the opposition. But when McCain showed up to meet with FSA commander Salim Idris, he got his picture taken with Anwar Ibrahim, too. Ibrahim, known also as Mohammad Nour, is a chief spokesman for the Northern Storm Brigade, one of the opposition’s rogue militant groups. Ibrahim has been implicated—and identified by victims—in prominent kidnappings. Unawares, McCain’s Senate office publicized the photo. Relatives of Northern Storm kidnapping victims in Lebanon and Syria positively identified Ibrahim/Nour, and Beirut’s Daily Star confirmed his presence alongside McCain. (McCain spokesman Brian Rogers called the photo “regrettable.”)
Here’s the way out: Be the grownup. The world’s lone superpower doesn’t have to take sides in a regional sectarian conflict but can provide a framework for negotiations. Our leaders don’t have to drink tea with rebel leaders whose agenda—and associations—remain unsubstantial. But where U.S. interests are at stake we should exert them in ways clearly felt by all parties involved. And the creation of another Islamic republic in the Middle East is not in U.S. interests.
We did this in Sudan and earlier in Bosnia with success at ending mass bloodshed and atrocities. The problem for President Obama is he lost his way in the conduct of grand strategy long ago. Analyst Ramzy Mardini, who worked in the State Department and is now with a think tank in Lebanon, says Obama has become “a victim of rhetorical entrapment over the course of the Arab Spring—from calling on foreign leaders to leave (with no plan to forcibly remove them) to publicly drawing red lines on the use of chemical weapons, and then being obliged to fulfill the threat.” For two years the Obama administration has claimed Assad has “lost all legitimacy” and is “clinging to power.” Yet he remains in power. That’s because, Mardini writes in The New York Times, “neither assertion is really accurate.”
What’s accurate is that the United States risks its own credibility when word and deed are not matched on the world stage.