Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney wants to arm the Syrian opposition in order to “level the battlefield.” When the White House warns that arming the rebels will cause further carnage and chaos, it is mocked by Romney partisans who warn that the escalation of carnage is happening anyway. Romney, of course, is in campaign mode, blaming President Obama for allowing Bashar al-Assad’s killing machine to proceed unmolested, and advocating instead “increasing pressure on Russia” and to allow U.N. authorization for military action.
It’s an easy case to make when the alternative seems to be passivity in the face of war crimes, but it doesn’t change the fact that leveling the battlefield right now would extend and deepen the conflict without offering a decisive outcome. It could also escalate a regional conflict that even Republican foreign policy graybeards such as Henry Kissinger warn could put U.S. strategic interests at risk.
Syria’s opposition remains fractured, with more than 50 different militias and no settled political leadership. Talk of finding groups with “cross-sectarian appeal” sounds like wishful thinking and the experience of Afghanistan and Iraq challenges the idea that providing arms and money creates leverage that would allow Washington to shape the agendas of distant proxies.
Light arms and anti-tank weapons won’t give the rebels the wherewithal to topple Assad’s regime. Because it is unlikely to enable the rebels to deal the regime a knockout blow anytime soon, evening up the odds is a recipe for a more protracted conflict that raises the danger of Syria breaking up. That’s why Western governments remain reluctant to take that option, preferring instead to emphasize the need to demilitarize the conflict, as the Kofi Annan plan is designed to do. The problem is that neither side is implementing the Annan plan, and the regime chose the path of militarizing the conflict precisely because that plays to its strengths.