The United States’ decision to cut off nonlethal aid to opposition forces in Syria because the rebels are fighting among themselves probably ends the Obama Administration’s current Syria policy, although not the country’s civil war.
When the conflict began three years ago, President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared loudly that Syrian president Bashar Assad had to go and that he no longer had the support of his people. He probably didn’t; Assad has badly abused his constituents. But his troops have been able to hold off a divided opposition.
Syria’s internal conflict also turned in part into a proxy war: The United States provided nonlethal military aid and training to moderate Syrian rebels, supported by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other Sunni Muslim Persian Gulf states. Supporting Assad’s government were Russia, Iran, and the Shiite Muslim terror group Hezbollah.
Mr. Obama properly threatened direct U.S. military intervention when the Syrian government was accused of using chemical weapons on rebels and civilians. He was seeking congressional approval for such action — which might have been refused — when Russia helped him by diverting the issue to the international Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
A conference between the Assad government and its opposition, with international participation, is scheduled for next month. With rebel groups shooting at each other and some U.S. military aid cut off, reducing if not removing American leverage, prospects for the conference occurring, much less succeeding, have shrunk drastically.
Apart from the embarrassment to the Obama Administration, which should have realized much earlier that the Syrian opposition was an unlikely horse to back, the world is still left with an ugly war that has produced millions of refugees in an explosive part of the world.
At the least, the United States must work to put as many players as possible at the table in January to try to scale down, if not end, the war in Syria.