"Arming the rebels -- that's an option. You look at and rethink all options. It doesn't mean you do or you will. ... It doesn't mean that the president has decided on anything." -- Secretary of State Chuck Hagel, May 2
But deciding on something is what presidents get paid the big bucks to do.
Where Syria is concerned, President Barack Obama is right to find the available options unappealing. The problem remains: Declining to choose is no solution. It simply leaves it to others -- including those most hostile to America -- to call the shots.
Two years ago, Syrians fed up with Bashar al-Assad's Iranian-aligned dictatorship took to the streets in peaceful protest. Assad responded with brutality. Before long, a civil war was raging. Since then, more than 75,000 men, women and children have been killed, a catastrophe of major proportions.
About 600 days ago, Obama declared, "Assad must go." When an American president wills such ends, he also should will the means. The president's secretaries of state and defense and his Central Intelligence Agency director advised him to support moderate and secular opponents to Assad. He didn't take their advice. Would the situation have turned out differently if he had? I think so, though we'll never know for certain. Call that the unbearable lightness of foreign policy.
Here's where we are now: Assad -- backed to the hilt by Iran's Shia jihadist rulers; Hezbollah, Iran's terrorist foreign legion; and Vladimir Putin's Russia, the autocrat's best friend -- is fighting for his survival against an opposition whose most lethal combatants are Sunni jihadists from the Gulf, North Africa, Central Asia, Europe and elsewhere, many of them joined at the hip to al-Qaida.
And that is the puzzle Obama and his advisers should be working overtime to solve. Is there a strategy that will ensure, or at least increase the odds, that neither Iran nor al-Qaida emerges from this conflict strengthened? The other day, a group of Syriacs visited my office. Syriacs are members of an ancient ethnic group; some might say an ancient nation. They have lived in the land now called Syria -- it is from them that the name derives -- since before the advent of Islam and the subsequent Arab invasions. They are Christians whose native tongue is Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus.
They told me they do not support Assad, nor do they support the Sunni jihadists fighting him. What the Syriacs do want is to survive in their homeland. They favor toleration and substantial autonomy for themselves and Syria's other minorities, for example the Kurds, Druze, Armenians, Turkmen, and even Alawites, Assad's people. My Syriac friends said they believe there are millions of urbanized Sunni Syrians who also do not want to live under the domination of an Iranian viceroy, jihadists or Islamists.
The Syriacs are not asking that American troops intervene. They would appreciate simple weapons they can use to defend themselves, their villages and their families from all those who would prey on them.
I would argue that it is in America's interest to support such people -- in Syria, in Egypt, pretty much everywhere. They should not be orphans, while terrorists, totalitarians and tyrants of all stripes receive abundant support from Iran, Russia, Gulf petro-princes and, more often than not, the United Nations. What kind of people are we if we take more pains to save snail darters than Syriacs? If Assad survives, Iran's rulers will pop the pomegranate juice -- a battle won in a war they've been waging since 1979. By contrast, Assad's fall would set back, perhaps permanently, Iranian attempts to spread their Islamic Revolution to Arab and Sunni lands. For this reason alone, "Assad must go." A strategy to help him on his way is long overdue.
What comes after Assad is probably not peace and prosperity. So it makes sense to begin, albeit belatedly, bolstering those willing to resist the foreign jihadists, as well as those who, post-Assad, would favor a federalized Syrian government, one in which no individual or faction can dictate to the others.
I'm not saying that is a good option. I am saying it's less bad than the others. And it's better than playing Hamlet while those who seek to diminish us (e.g. Russia) and those who seek to destroy us (e.g. Iran and their jihadist rivals) shape the future.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.