Despite its own skepticism and that of its military commanders, the Obama administration is under increasing pressure to arm and train the Syrian opposition -- if we can be sure we're arming the right people.
The U.S. last month pledged to the opposition $60 million in nonlethal aid, mostly meals and medical supplies, which we have yet to send.
On Monday, the Obama administration expressed support for Britain's and France's plans to arm Syrian rebel groups, and it said it wouldn't stand in the way of other nations that wanted to do the same.
But, militarily, the U.S. plan to stay on the sidelines with regard to providing weapons is in large part because American diplomats and the military aren't sure who is who in the chaotic mix of groups making up the Syrian opposition. The U.S. is justifiably worried that weapons would wind up in the wrong hands.
Gen. John Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Washington military think tank Monday, "About six months ago, we had a very -- let's call it opaque understanding of the opposition, and now I'd say it's even more opaque."
He urged the administration to "proceed cautiously," but Congress may not be that patient. GOP Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina have been demanding that we arm the rebels and provide air support.
On Monday, Rep. Eliot Engle of New York, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, introduced legislation that would expand U.S. economic assistance to the opposition, but, more important, authorize training and arming of "carefully vetted" rebel forces.
Doing so, Engel wrote to congressional colleagues, would help "ensure that the U.S. has a constructive relationship with a successor government in Damascus that pursues development, democracy and peace with its neighbors and rejects the regionally destabilizing influence of Iran and Hezbollah."
This, as the old saying goes, is nice work if you can get it, but Dempsey raises a valid point when he says we should be absolutely sure who we are dealing with when we begin passing out weapons.
The murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad has forfeited any claim to continue ruling the country, but we should be wary of substituting one violent anti-democratic regime with another. An estimated 70,000 Syrian dead and another 1 million made refugees is enough.
We don't want to be party to increasing that carnage.
Dale McFeatters is a syndicated columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service.