The muddle that is President Barack Obama’s policy on Syria has grown still muddier. On Tuesday the president backed away from a “red line” he had drawn on the use of chemical weapons by the regime of Bashar Assad, setting the threshold for proof of a violation in such a way as to virtually exclude the possibility that one could ever be confirmed. Yet that same day his aides leaked to The Washington Post and other media organizations the news that the president might soon reverse his long-standing opposition to providing Syrian rebels with arms. And the administration readied yet another effort to persuade Russia to abandon its support of the Assad regime in favor of a negotiated political transition.
Can any coherence be found in this? A charitable interpretation might be that Obama wishes to avoid immediate U.S. intervention but wants to pressure Moscow into changing its position by letting it be known that the alternative is greater U.S. support for the rebels. If so, Obama is being too clever. His weak and legalistic words about the need to verify a “chain of custody” on any chemical-weapons use and his declaration that even a hard confirmation would lead only to a “rethink [of] the range of options” simply invite further chemical attacks.
What’s needed is what the opposition has repeatedly requested: a no-fly zone in parts of Syria, or other measures — such as attacks with missiles and stealth bombers — to ground the Syrian air force. Yes, such measures would have to be taken without a United Nations resolution, and they would upset Russian ruler Vladimir Putin. But if Obama continues to pursue a policy of awaiting U.N. consensus and deferring to Russia, the result will be more crossings of his red line — and grave damage to U.S. interests.
The Washington Post (May 2)