The United States’ decision to cut off nonlethal aid to the Syrian opposition because the rebels are actively fighting among themselves probably spells an ignominious end to the Obama administration’s Syria policy, although not the country’s civil war.
The whole affair from the American point of view started with loud declarations from both President Barack Obama and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Syrian President Bashar Assad had to go and that he no longer had the support of the Syrian people. He probably didn’t — he is a president who has badly abused the people of his country. But his troops have been able for three years to hold off a divided opposition.
Syria’s internal conflict also turned in part into a proxy war, with the United States providing nonlethal military aid and training to moderate Syrian rebels, along with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Sunni Muslim Persian Gulf states on that side. On the side of the Assad government were Russia, Iran and the Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah.
Mr. Obama threatened direct U.S. military intervention when the Syrian government was accused of using chemical weapons on the rebels. He was in the process of seeking congressional approval for such action — which might well have been refused — when Russia helped him off the hook by lateraling the chemical weapons issue to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
A conference between the Assad government and its opposition, with international participation, is set to start in Switzerland Jan. 22. With rebel groups shooting at each other and some U.S. military aid cut off, reducing if not removing American leverage, prospects for the conference taking place, much less succeeding, have shrunk drastically.
Apart from the embarrassment to the Obama administration, which should have divined much earlier that the Syrian opposition was an unlikely horse to back, the world is still left with an ugly war, which has produced millions of refugees in an explosive part of the world.
At the least, the United States must make a major effort to put as many players as possible at the table in January to try to scale down, if not end, the war in Syria.