In the winter of 1987 I and a group of wide-eyed American college students from Stetson University in Florida visited a Soviet war memorial/museum to World War II in the northern Soviet city of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) during a semester abroad. There our Russian hosts took perverse pleasure in showing us an exhibit featuring a U.S. newspaper headline from the period of the 1941 Nazi invasion of the USSR gleefully calling on the American government to let Hitler's Nazis and Stalin's Communists fight it out to the finish. Neither side the paper argued it was the friend of America or her values and thus it was not in our interests to do anything prevent our enemies from slogging it out in a brutal war that weakened both sides.
While my Russian hosts were outraged by the American newspaper's Machiavellian cynicism to what they still call "The Great Patriotic War," I remember thinking at the time (mind you it was still the Cold War and I had seen both the original Red Dawn and Rambo III many times) that choosing between the genocidal Communist Stalin and the genocidal Nazi Hitler was like legendary Odysseus choosing between Scylla and Charybdis.
I have been having the same feeling recently as Obama considers carrying out a punitive attack on the Alawite-Shiite regime of Syrian President Basher al Assad after his regime reportedly killed over 1,000 Sunni civilians with neurotoxins in an attack outside Damascus. Obama has come under considerable pressure to do something from both the Left, which wants the president to prevent further crimes against humanity, and the Right, which have called upon him to fulfill his earlier threat to Assad that America would react if the Syrian president "crossed a red line" and used WMDs in the Syrian civil war. Senator John McCain has been the most vocal critic of the president and has called for him to both attack Assad's regime with our Air Force and arm "moderates" among the Sunni rebels.
But the sad reality of this war is that unlike, say, the Bosnian or Kosovar Muslim civilians who were being slaughtered by Serbian Christian repeat ethnic cleansers when Clinton/NATO decided to intervene in the 1990s, there are no good guys in the Syrian conflict to support. On the one side you have McCain's Sunni rebels who are officially organized by the moderate Free Syrian Army based in neighboring Turkey, a U.S. ally. But the truth is that the Free Syrian Army has been completely sidelined by more extremist jihad groups on the ground in Syria who are waging a holy war/terror campaign against the Alawite-Shiites whom they label "munafiqs" (apostates). The New York Times has reported "Nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of."
The most powerful of all the Sunni rebel groups in Syria is the Al Nusra Front, an extremist group that recently allied itself with Al Qaeda. To compound matters, our old insurgent/terrorist enemy from Iraq, Al Qaeda in Iraq, has claimed to have merged with the Syrian Al Nusra Front and has been sending fighters and suicide bombers to help out their Sunni brothers in Syria. In fact the "calling card" of the jihadist Sunni rebels has been mass casualty suicide bombings against Shiites, such as the ones on May 11, 2013, which killed 55 civilians and maimed or injured 400 more. One Sunni rebel commander recently had himself filmed cutting out the heart and liver of a slain Assad soldier and eating the bloody parts on camera to show his hatred for the Shiite "dogs."
If that was not enough, the Sunni rebel extremists have been beheading Syrian Christians and burning their villages. The extremist Sunni rebel fighters have been inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood and Taliban and have instituted strict Shariah Islamic law courts in areas they control that have handed down sentences that have included public lashings. The Al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front rebels have also been engaged in a process of what can only be described as ethnic cleansing against moderate Kurds in northern areas they control.
Arming the Sunni-Al Qaeda linked rebels would akin to arming our old "friends" from the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani (two ex-mujahideen anti-Soviet "freedom fighters" who turned on the U.S. after receiving millions of dollars in arms/funds and are now linked to Al Qaeda and members of the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan). God forbid we concede to the Syrian Sunni rebels' most pressing request and arm them with Stinger ground-to-air heat seeking missiles to defend themselves from Assad government air attacks and one of these missiles is subsequently used by their Al Qaeda allies to shoot down a civilian-packed airliner. As for limiting our assistance to the rebels to airstrikes, former Congressman Dennis Kucinich has warned America will become the "Al Qaeda's Air Force" if we use our air armada to attack Assad regime targets.
On the other hand you have the Alawite-Shiite government of President Assad which has been bolstered in the civil war by thousands of extremist Shiite Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon and equipped by the Ayatollahs of Shiite Iran. It too has its death squads (the dreaded Shabiha) and has slaughtered tens of thousands of Sunni civilians in cold blood.
The choice then is between Al Qaeda-affiliated, Christian-beheading, heart-eating Sunni suicide bombers or a Hezbollah-linked, WMD-deploying, Iranian-backed dictator and his throat-slitting death squads. Henry Kissinger once said of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s "it's a pity they both can't lose" and one can say the same for the Al Qaeda vs. Hezbollah proxy fight in Syria.
Obama's only way out of the corner he has been painted into by Republicans who are demanding that he fulfill his threat on Syrian WMDs is to do as little as possible to tilt the balance in favor of one side or the other while symbolically "degrading" Assad's ability to deploy WMDs against civilians in the future. This result might be attained by firing Tomahawk Cruise Missiles from off shore ships at Assad's WMD storage sites or attacking them with Predator or Reaper drones following the Libyan campaign template. A more decisive land engagement by the "World's Police Man" to save civilian lives in Syria would put U.S. troops in the middle of a dog fight between two pit bulls and make us the enemies of both the Al Qaeda rebels and the pro-Hezbollah government. After the high price the U.S. paid in lives in Iraq (approximately 4,500) and treasure (more than a trillion dollars) this is something that post-"Operation Iraqi Freedom" America does not have the stomach for as it tries to dig itself out of a recession.
Thus, like Odysseus, Obama must steer the U.S. ship through the troubled waters of the Middle East while trying to avoid being dragged into a conflict that pits our enemies in a bloody civil war that, for all the dreadful toll it takes on Syrian civilians, suits us just fine if neither side emerges victorious.
Professor Brian Glyn Williams is the author of Predators. The CIA's Drone War on Al Qaeda and The Last Warlord. The Life and Legend of Dostum, the Afghan Warrior who Led US Special Forces to Topple the Taliban Regime.