Obama shifts course in Syria
President Obama’s decision to supply Syrian rebels with small arms and ammunition won’t satisfy those who want the United States to be actively involved in ousting President Bashar al-Assad. But we think most Americans would agree that Obama should be cautious about getting the nation more directly involved in another Middle Eastern conflict. Evidence that Assad used poison gas and recent military setbacks for the rebels gave Obama little choice but to provide additional aid to the rebels, though his move was measured. The New York Times reports the weapons will not include the anti-aircraft weapons the rebels had sought. The president had hoped the rebels’ initial gains would lead to negotiations that would result in Assad stepping down. But support by Russia and Iran has helped Assad’s forces regain the upper hand, though Obama once said Assad’s fall was inevitable.If he was wrong about that, the president is right to be worried that a heavy military involvement would not only strain a war-weary nation, but could end up strengthening terrorists groups. Hezbollah and Iran are helping Assad’s forces, but al-Qaida-related extremists are among the rebels. Assad is unquestionably a tyrannical butcher, but the rebels hardly represent goodness and light. Critics can justifiably say Obama’s move is but a half-hearted measure, but there is no guarantee that pouring resources into the fight will lead to a satisfactory outcome. And the United States can always increase its support if that appears necessary. The move does signal Russia and Iran that the United States does not intend for the rebels to be overwhelmed. There is a possibility the gesture could lead to productive discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin when he and Obama attend the G-8 summit meeting in Northern Ireland next week. The best outcome would be for Russia to stop propping up Assad and pressure him to agree to an orderly transfer of power. The United States undoubtedly could ensure Assad’s defeat if it utilized its military resources. But that would not necessarily lead to a stable Syria. Winning wars is often just the first step of what can be a long and costly entanglement. And Americans have seen enough bloodshed and chaos in the Middle East to know our nation should not be too presumptuous about its ability to bring reform and change there.