Al-Monitor.com Editor and CEO Andrew Parasiliti: Obama gambles for peace, risks mission creep in Syria

President Obama has shuffled the deck on Syria in advance of his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-8 Summit this week.

Putin is not pleased with either Obama’s decision to provide arms to the Syrian rebels or the new US assessment that the Syrian government used chemical weapons.

But if the two leaders can agree to disagree, and get on with reviving the stalled Geneva peace conference on Syria, there may be a chance to finally bring the war to a close.

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By authorizing arms to the rebels, the US may hope to encourage and reassure the Syrian opposition to get them to the negotiating table. This is Obama’s card with Putin. The main Syrian opposition group, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, has refused to attend Geneva unless the Free Syrian Army (FSA) receives more arms. Assad’s army, backed by Hezbollah, dealt the FSA a blow by taking the strategic town of Qusair this month.  FSA forces are now on defense in Aleppo and Homs.

The US interest in Syria should be to end the war as soon as possible. The war is a humanitarian and strategic calamity that is getting worse. According to the United Nations, more than 93,000 Syrians have been killed, more than 1.5 million are registered refugees, and 6.8 million people require assistance.  These numbers grow every day.

Absent a diplomatic track, the consequence of sending arms to the rebels is more war.  The US will find itself on a slippery slope as a partisan in a regional sectarian conflict, with the pressure to ‘do more’ in the event of further setbacks by the opposition, or some forthcoming massacre or atrocity – which will happen, as is the nature of this war. 

Iran and Hezbollah are not backing down in their support for Assad.  In response to the US announcement, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said Saturday that Hezbollah is in the Syria fight to stay.  Hezbollah forces turned the tide in Qusair.  No amount of arms and training for opposition forces at this stage will match the capacity of the Syrian army and Hezbollah.  

Without a peace process, the practical consequence of prolonging the war will be more Syrian deaths, including innocents and opposition forces, and rising numbers, and influence, of terrorists linked to Al-Qaeda, who are increasingly prominent among groups fighting the Assad regime. 

Syria’s neighbors, including Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey, will face even more instability, refugees, terrorism, and spillover from the brutal sectarian violence.

None of these outcomes serve the interests of the United States and its allies.

Putin wants Iran at the table in Geneva.  The US has not agreed, citing Iran’s backing of the Assad regime. That Iran is Assad’s indispensable ally, and the chief backer of Hezbollah, is just the point. No other country has the influence that Iran has in Damascus. The decision to end the war, or continue the war, will rest with Iran.  Tehran has welcomed the Geneva conference and has formally offered to discuss Syria with the US and its allies.  If the goal is to end the war, then you pick up the offer and deal with Iran. You make peace with your enemies, not your friends.  Tehran will have its say one way or the other.  The election of centrist Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran provides yet another opportunity with Iran which might allow some space for both Washington and Tehran to work out the seating in Geneva.

Obama’s moves on Syria are risky.  The US could find itself in mission creep mode, reacting to events and agendas beyond its control, and losing sight of America’s interest in ending the war. The US military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan began one way and ended another.

Americans are wary of military intervention in Syria. In a recent CBS/New York Times poll, 61% said that the US “does not have responsibility” to “do something” about the fighting in Syria.  

The Obama Administration has so far managed Syria policy with the right mix of caution and a focus on a political outcome. If arming the rebels is a step to get the Geneva process on track, and end the war, then the risk of arming the rebels is worth it.  

Andrew Parasiliti is Editor & CEO of Al-Monitor.com, a new media website dealing with the Middle East, and serves on the Board of Directors of the US Friends of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.