After two years of expressly opposing such a policy, the Obama administration has officially announced that it will begin to directly arm the Syrian rebels. The reason? They say it's because they have confirmed with "high confidence" that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons -- crossing Obama's "red line."
This is very clearly not the reason for Obama's shift.
First of all, to take this reason seriously, one has to suspend judgement on a number of issues. You'd need to ignore the fact that the last time claims of chemical weapons use cropped up, the Obama administration explicitly denied their validity. "We found no credible evidence to corroborate or to confirm that chemical weapons were used," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland in January.
You also need to ignore the leaked revelations from United Nations official Carla Del Ponte last month that it was the rebels, not the regime, who used sarin gas. The UN independent commission of inquiry on Syria "has not yet seen evidence of government forces having used chemical weapons," Reuters reported Del Ponte as saying.
And finally, to believe that the administration decided to escalate the war in Syria because of "high confidence" that the Assad regime used chemical weapons, you need to be in the habit believing official government claims without any evidence attached to them. This strategy has worked out well for us in the past.
Alas, the administration's stated reason for deciding to directly arm the Syrian rebels simply lacks credibility. So why the sudden shift in policy?
Reason's Scott Shackford speculates that the Obama White House is "wagging the dog," referring to the 1997 film Wag the Dog, in which a satirical White House develops a pretext for war in order to distract the public from an embarrassing presidential sex scandal. Chris Stirewalt at Fox News makes a similar claim.
At a time when the Obama administration is facing unprecedented heat for a number of successive scandals, culminating in the recent leak of the NSA's domestic spying programs by whistleblower Edward Snowden, I honestly wouldn't be surprised.
But even on its own terms, what could arming the Syrian rebels possibly accomplish as a response to alleged chemical weapons use by the Assad regime?
Nothing. The response is entirely detached from the claimed trigger. As The American Conservative's Daniel Larison writes, "Providing arms to the Syrian rebels, and mostly light arms at that, as a punishment for the regime's actions won't make chemical weapons use less likely, nor does it directly address the chemical weapons use."
Indeed, more U.S. direct involvement in the Syrian war is more likely to push Assad to escalate and be more violent, as it gives further credence to regime claims that the rebellion is a malicious foreign plot to overthrow the government.
Additionally, the alleged use of chemical weapons is a ridiculous excuse for more direct intervention. According to White House Deputy National-Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, the Obama administration believes Assad's alleged use of sarin gas has killed 100 to 150 people. In a war that has killed tens of thousands of people by artillery and conventional bombs, deciding to go to war because of the unique deaths of a mere fraction of the total borders on schizophrenic.
Another baffling aspect of this announcement is the fact that direct arming of the rebels won't include "decisive" aid. That is, the Obama administration will be sending small arms to the rebels, stopping short of the anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry desired by the rebels. Obama knows this will not tip the balance in favor of the rebels. It will merely prolong the stalemate.
And here we have a possible answer to the Obama administration's decision. It has nothing to do with any alleged use of chemical weapons. The aim is apparently to keep the Syrian war going, for some key strategic reasons.
Back in April, Thanassis Cambanis argued that one reason that the Obama administration hasn't directly intervened militarily in Syria is that the long, drawn-out conflict hurts America's geopolitical competitors:
The war is also becoming a sinkhole for America's enemies. Iran and Hezbollah, the region's most persistent irritants to the United States and Israel, have tied up considerable resources and manpower propping up Assad's regime and establishing new militias. Russia remains a key guarantor of the government, costing Russia support throughout the rest of the Arab world. Gulf monarchies, which tend to be troublesome American allies, have invested small fortunes on the rebel side, sending weapons and establishing exile political organizations. The more the Syrian war sucks up the attention and resources of its entire neighborhood, the greater America's relative influence in the Middle East.
The ongoing conflict in Syria isn't perceived in Washington as harming U.S. interests, but -- according to Cambanis -- it is seen as draining the resources and influence of Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia. This is valuable to U.S. strategists at a time when the relative balance of U.S. power is seen as waning.
Not only is the Syrian war draining the resources and hampering the reputations of America's geopolitical rivals, but it provides the U.S. with an opportunity to have a proxy war with Iran, ever the spoiler of U.S. imperial designs in the Middle East.
According to Foreign Policy's Dan Drezner, "this is simply the next iteration of the unspoken, brutally realpolitik policy towards Syria that's been going on for the past two years. To recap, the goal of that policy is to ensnare Iran and Hezbollah into a protracted, resource-draining civil war, with as minimal costs as possible."
The Syrian people have been suffering immensely from this policy for two years. And the Obama administration risks endangering the American people in this scheme as well: It won't be long before arming the Syrian rebels, most of whom have ties to al-Qaeda groups, blows back in our proverbial face.