08/20/2014 12:37 pm ET Updated Oct 19, 2014

Second Guessing Syria

Late in 2012, I attended a small briefing with a senior White House security official. Each of the dozen people there had a chance to speak, and most took the opportunity to lobby for something. I asked this question: Who are we rooting for in Syria?

The official raised his eyebrows and said, "That is exactly the right question." He went on to explain that the opposition to Bashar al-Assad had not yet produced a leader who would be able to repair the fractured country, and that the only thing the many groups had in common was a dislike for the Syrian president. The United States was reluctant to arm any segment of the rebels without some sense of a better outcome.

Critics of President Obama have been pretty shrill in their analysis of his approach to that terrible civil war. Unsatisfied with the diplomatic efforts that resulted in the surrender of chemical weaponry, they have repeated over and again that his reluctance to intervene with heavy arms was an error in judgment.

Now we have a sense of what might have happened on our watch if we had followed the critics' advice. A story in the August 13th edition of the Washington Post focuses on Turkey's dilemma. It seems that Turkish Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan indeed gave the green light to arming insurgents who were fighting to overthrow Assad. Turkish border towns became conduits for everything from heavy arms to cell phones for the rebels. Turkish hospitals patched up wounded fighters. Turkish border patrols winked at the influx of foreign volunteers crossing into Syria to join the fight.

Of course, the result is ISIS/ISIL, the jihadist group that has failed to overthrow Assad, but managed to make yet another mess of Iraq while slaughtering those who do not toe an ideological line. Turkey now finds itself trying to contain the very radicals they hoped would serve their purpose. They fear an invasion by the "allies" they emboldened.

The entire region is unstable, the result of a convergence of influences that erupted during the Iraq war and have been fed by jihadist groups and the secularists who have tried to repress them. The losers, as always, are the ordinary citizens who are more concerned with making a living and raising their families. Choosing a quick fix to a long-term problem in order to proclaim "mission accomplished" is almost always a recipe for disaster. Just ask Turkey.