Despite the critical importance of the political upheaval in Egypt, Washington must not lose focus on the ongoing conflict in Syria, which has now spilled over into neighboring Lebanon. In fact, Egypt's coup and the potential for violence there should only underscore the importance of working to find a negotiated solution to Syria's civil war in order to halt and begin to reverse the dynamics that could rapidly lead to a region-wide conflagration.
The Obama administration recently announced that it would begin to provide small-arms and ammunition for Syrian rebel forces. Predictably, it was criticized for not doing enough. Senator John McCain was among the most vocal: "For us to sit by, and watch these people being massacred, raped, tortured in the most terrible fashion, meanwhile, the Russians are all in, Hezbollah is all in, and we're talking about giving them more light weapons? It's insane." At the same time, the senator ruled out any introduction of U.S ground troops while almost despairing at Assad's resilience.
McCain's frustrations capture what most neoconservative hawks or primacists (as they view the maintenance of U.S. primacy as the core objective of foreign policy) are feeling. While many liberal internationalists have consistently advocated for a more multilateral intervention to stop the killing of innocent civilians, for primacists the Syrian conflict has always been viewed as an opportunity to remove the Assad regime. As in Iraq, they are less concerned about the larger implications of that policy. What type of government will follow Assad in Damascus? Who are the forces that the U.S. might unintentionally empower in its efforts to overthrow the regime? What is the future of the Allawite minority in Syria that will likely be targeted for slaughter if Assad is defeated?
What the primacist camp is seeking is American action that will recalibrate the situation on the ground in favor of the rebels and provide them with the momentum that was seemingly lost with Hezbollah's entry into the conflict. Whether it is providing heavier weapons for the rebels or a no-fly zone that eventually blurs into offensive operations against Assad's air force and armored columns, the United States should be prepared to take action that will benefit the rebel forces.
This logically follows the argument that, had the president only engaged the conflict earlier in a more proactive way, the United States could have nurtured the development of a secular rebel army, discerning between Syrian patriots and foreign jihadists, and with the right amount of backing, Assad would be gone today. It ignores the realities of the country and the region, and assumes an almost infallible working knowledge of the opposition by U.S. and allied intelligence agencies (which have certainly claimed no such monopoly of knowledge), but it plays into the idea that if America just used its power then good outcomes would follow.
What these arguments seem to overlook is that the United States cannot unilaterally resolve the conflict for (at least) one major reason: Russia. Even as news of the U.S. decision to arm the rebels spread, Russia, which had suspended arms shipments until the EU embargo elapsed and has since committed to arm the Assad regime, categorically stated that it will not allow no-fly zones and also rejected any plans for humanitarian corridors. Having learned from the Libya experience, it seems clear that Moscow will oppose any action that could be used as a cover to support Syria's rebels. Meanwhile Jihadists from the Gulf States and Europe flow into the region to fight Assad, while the division between Iraq's Sunni and Shia communities intensifies, bombings in Lebanon threaten to reignite communal violence in that fragile state, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt considers the relative benefits of further political engagement versus armed uprising.
This decision to arm the Syrian rebels should clearly be viewed as a means to an end, rather than any end unto itself. It should serve as a credible signal to Assad, Tehran, and to Moscow that the United States will actively support the interests of its regional allies and prevent the collapse of the rebellion. At the same time, all diplomatic efforts should be made to work with Russia to bring Assad to the negotiating table to implement a cease fire, construct plans for an orderly transition period, and devise a comprehensive resolution to the conflict. Restoring some measure of balance to the Syrian civil war may be sensible, but simply supporting "acceptable" rebel factions with the vague goal of perpetuating the conflict or to achieve a "victory" over the Assad regime is short-sighted and could prove disastrous for U.S. policy in the Middle East.