Obama's risky Syria move
June 15th, 2013
09:30 AM ET

Obama's risky Syria move

"Fareed Zakaria GPS," Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN

By Fareed Zakaria

So, the Obama administration has now decided that Syria’s use of chemical weapons crosses a red line and, as a result, the United States will supply the opposition with small arms and ammunition.  This strikes me as a risky decision – too little to have a real impact and enough to commit the United States in a complex civil war.

First, let’s be clear. This will not ease the humanitarian nightmare unfolding in Syria. The opposition forces will now have some more arms and will fight back, presumably killing more of the regime’s soldiers and supporters. Levels of violence might well rise not decline.

So what exactly is the objective of this policy shift? Is it the defeat of Bashar al-Assad? If so, can such a small shift in American support for the opposition really do that? The opposition forces are disorganized. Joshua Landis, the Syria scholar, estimates that there are 1,000 militias that make up the rebel forces. Such a decentralized opposition would need a lot more than more small weapons and ammunition to succeed.

If they did succeed, that would be a good outcome. But it will almost certainly mean that the various militias would then begin a massacre of the Alawites, the sect that the al-Assad regime comes from. It is unclear what would happen to the Christians and Kurds, who have tended to stay neutral in this conflict, but they too might feel the wrath of newly empowered Sunni militias. The Alawites, Christians, and Kurds collectively make up about a third of Syrians, so this could become an even-larger, many-cornered struggle. Remember, with 180,000 troops in Iraq, we could not stop massacres, ethnic cleansing and massive human rights violations. We are now planning to achieve lofty ends with almost no means.

More from GPS: Why Obama needs to act on Syria

The most likely scenario is that this small step up in American assistance will not make much difference. At that point, pressure will build on the Obama administration. Sen. John McCain will make speeches saying that now, America’s credibility is on the line. Having supported the opposition, we have to ensure that they succeed. The administration will face a choice between seeming ineffectual or plunging deeper into a complex and bloody civil war.

It’s possible that the administration can just stand pat and do the little that it is doing. That could be a brutal but effective strategy to bleed America’s enemies. Contrary to much of the media commentary, the fact that Iran and Hezbollah are sending militias, arms, and money into Syria is not a sign of strength. It is a sign that they are worried that the Syrian regime might fall and are desperately seeking to shore it up. Keeping them engaged and pouring resources into Syria weakens them substantially. But can the United States pursue such a cold-blooded strategy of realpolitik?

Former President Bill Clinton recently said that he favored some American intervention because “Sometimes it's just best to get caught trying, as long as you don't overcommit.” That suggests that supporters of interventions see it as some kind of symbolic policy, to show that we care. But it is like trying to get a little bit pregnant. The outcome is rarely what you want.

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Topics: Barack Obama • Syria • United States

soundoff (199 Responses)
  1. georgex9

    President Obama, please don't let the war enthusiasts get you into this conflict between sides based on historical psychotic religious fractions.

    June 18, 2013 at 9:12 am | Reply
  2. Rick McDaniel

    Obama never does much of anything, that makes any rational sense. One has to ask........when people are going to examine what he does.......and stop listening to what he says.......which are mostly lies.

    June 18, 2013 at 10:42 am | Reply
    • Joe Bachofen

      Mr. McDaniel, when I read what you say regarding President Obama, I find nothing of value. The situation in Syria is a no win situation as Fareed Zakariah correctly described. Taking sides in this conflict would be like invading Iraq. Anything that the US does in that specific area will have negative consequences. The only smart thing to do is nothing and even that will have negative consequences. Nonetheless, my vote is to do nothing with regard to Syria. Now, do you have something constructive to say?

      August 8, 2013 at 3:30 pm | Reply
  3. Fares Raslan

    Syrians are not asking for american boots and no fly zones,they can enforce their own ,they are taking over military airports one by one .
    they need anti tanks and anti aircrafts missiles to stop the shelling of their cities,lynching of their kids ,raping of their women ,and bombing of their hospitals .
    there is no civil war in syria ,since only the alawites are killing our civilians ,we ( sunnis ) are not ...so you can't call it a civil war .we are not killing them based on their ID like what happened in Lebanon from BOTH sides .
    The west has been exposed with their hallow calls for democracy ,human rights ,and anti islamic stand ( sunni are 90% of the Muslims ) ..the russians are exposed again and again for their anti muslims stand ..( ie chechnia,afganistan ..etc .) and the chineese also for their anti everything stand .
    they are all united on one cause ..let Syria desintegrate for the Sake of Israel Security .
    Muslims are watching MR Zakaria and this could be the seed for the count down of the destruction of Israel that they are trying to protect with the so-called the new MIdeast ...it will back fire ( as our prophit PBUH ) had predicted 1430 years ago .

    June 18, 2013 at 11:19 am | Reply
  4. georgex9

    President Obama, please don't let the war enthusiasts get you into this Syrian conflict between sides based on historical psychotic religious fractions.
    Remember it is easier to get into these disputes than to get out.

    June 18, 2013 at 12:48 pm | Reply
  5. M.K

    Fareed Zakaria "Alawites, Christians, and Kurds make a third of the country"
    you care what WILL probably happen to one third of the population, and you didn't care for the two thirds that been slaughtered for the past two and half years ......so disgusting !!

    June 18, 2013 at 2:03 pm | Reply
  6. Mo

    Obama’s administration never wanted to involve in this mess after involvement and experience they had in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama tried to use chemical weapon use as red line and he and his admin did not think that Assad will use chemical weapons against his people but now they are situation that they have to do something to show the Americans and world that they would act based on what they say. Besides, helping opposition group means getting in another cold war with Russians. Do we really want that.

    June 18, 2013 at 6:19 pm | Reply
  7. Putin out fires with gasoline.

    Obama is being the middle of the road guy he is. He didn't want to send military aid, but his line was crossed and he had to act on what he said. There are still people who want much more intervention and he is committing as little as he can get away with. In the end, it's a win win for him because two of America's adversaries in the region are sending weapons keeps them occupied and weakened at the same time America doesn't fire a shot. Assad wom't talk because he thinks he can win. The rebels won't talk without assad leaving. No one is going to stop shooting and the rebels will never be strong enough to defeat the army, so the only way to get assad to talk is to grind syria (and iran and hezbollah) down to the point where they are no longer efrctive. The fire was dying, so Obama just sprayed a little gas on it (from saudi arabia). Obama is a lot more slick than people realize. He just scored a win win win for the west.

    June 18, 2013 at 7:15 pm | Reply
  8. vistar hornbill

    Its a rather complicated conflict in Syria, even after they got rid of Assad. One can expect rivalry between the various Muslim groups to tear the country apart, again.

    So, until Syrian rebels accept the fact that they have to change themselves first before they want any change to be made for their war torn country. Otherwise America might end up fighting a new enemy – these rebels and Hezbollah fighters. You can expect this sort of turn around, biting the hands that feed you, with Islamist fighters.

    Assad has a personal agenda to destroy Syria's buildings and infracstructures before he flees – probably to Iran. Such is the wickedness of this man who was a huge sponsor of inernational terroists.

    June 18, 2013 at 9:09 pm | Reply
  9. Socrates

    Some people like to learn the hard way. It wasn't enough for the Americans to support and trained Bin Ladin and his "social workers". Now they are supporting the same people in Syria. I don't like dictators, however, if I have to choose between a secular dictator and a fanatic retarded religious Muslim who hate women and have no sympathy at all for people who don't think like them, my preference will go for Assad at any day of the week. Even a mentally challenged guy can see the difference between one and the other except the Americans. Are they mentally challenged? It looks as Obama and his advisors are.

    June 18, 2013 at 10:27 pm | Reply
  10. ermentrude

    Risky move, my behind. President Obama said Assad must go because attacking your own citizens will not be tolerated by the international community. The citizens Assad harmed or endangered, are not going to go quietly back to Syria, once Assad declares himself the winner.

    June 18, 2013 at 11:20 pm | Reply
  11. Sostrows

    How is Syria within our sphere of vital interest? What is the administration's envisioned preferred "end-state"??? None that I can seem to figure out so far.

    I'd advocate for division of Syria along faction lines with semi-autonomous regions (eg ex-Yugoslavia) with Russia/French/Turks part of the deal. Israel is best left out, as they basically are pursuing whatever agenda is best for them anyway, and a fragmented Syria with only defensive military capabilities and no WMD sounds like a good deal for them.

    End state, everyone gets to keep a "vested" stake interest protected, region remains fragmented to prevent a pan-Islamic terrorist state, genocide is stopped/prevented.

    June 19, 2013 at 2:53 pm | Reply
  12. guest

    This is not a civil war because the rebels are foreigners. The rebels are not Syrians.

    June 19, 2013 at 9:54 pm | Reply
  13. sillyT

    here's an idea: leave Syria to the Syrians. it is none of our (US) business. i would like to say that i am surprised that our imbecile in the white house wants us in yet another war, but i cannot. he and our congress have no idea what they are doing...ding!

    June 20, 2013 at 5:34 am | Reply
  14. joe c

    the U.S. will never ever win anything in the mideast as long as it pander's to the money grubbing shylock filled poopstain called israel.
    AIPAC has ruined the U.S. just like the jews ruined europe and russsia...they are the tumor on the worlds sphinter

    June 20, 2013 at 7:23 am | Reply
  15. Mosul

    The ambitions of any modern society lies in its ability to wage war. The more apt. a state is in it war power the control of the population eases. Our society is in deline, our current war of life is simply unsustainable. Demand Destruction= money. Fear is money, fear is war, fear is power. A fearful population will align its beliefs with the ambitions of its host state. "The bigger the lie, the more the masses will believe it!"

    June 20, 2013 at 10:39 am | Reply
  16. Shetwan

    Several things. Maybe we have gotten to comfortable with the enemies we face in the US that are not armed with guns. 2) Nonviolence works if you can get the enemy to put the gun and his damming strategy down. If not, arms are better. 3)One thing or this thing US you will be ok. Guess who's praying!

    June 22, 2013 at 8:27 pm | Reply
  17. In Home Personal Training

    think at this point we need to infiltrate the Syrian Gov't at all levels and start a slow and important change. We need all their chemical
    weapons destroyed. You can only talk for so long and truning your back is only helpful till the problem is in your own back yard.

    April 15, 2014 at 9:59 pm | Reply
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