Cliff May
“Arming the rebels — that’s an option. You look at and rethink all options. It doesn’t mean you do or you will. . . . It doesn’t mean that the president has decided on anything.”

—Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, May 2, 2013

But deciding on something is what presidents get paid the big bucks to do. Obama is right to find the available options unappealing, but the problem remains. Declining to choose is no solution; it simply leaves it to others — including those most hostile to America — to call the shots.

Two years ago, Syrians fed up with Bashar Assad’s Iranian-aligned dictatorship began to peacefully protest. Assad responded with brutality. Before long, a civil war was raging. Since then, more than 75,000 men, women, and children have been killed — a catastrophe of major proportions. Curiously, this carnage is not a priority for either the Arab League or the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, as even a cursory look at their websites makes clear.

About 600 days ago, Obama declared that “Assad must go.” When an American president wills ends, the best practice is also to will means. The president’s secretary of state, secretary of defense, and director of central intelligence advised him to support moderate and secular opponents of Assad. He didn’t take their advice. Would the situation have turned out differently if he had? It’s a reasonable supposition, though we’ll never know for certain. Call that the unbearable lightness of foreign policy.

Here’s where we are now: Assad — backed to the hilt by Iran’s Shia jihadists; Hezbollah, Iran’s terrorist foreign legion; and Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the autocrat’s friend — is fighting insurgents whose most lethal combatants are non-Syrian Sunni jihadists, some of them joined at the hip to al-Qaeda.

As Henry Kissinger reportedly said during the Iraq–Iran war: “It’s a pity both can’t lose.” And that is the puzzle that Obama and his advisers should be working overtime to solve. Is there a way to ensure that neither Iran nor al-Qaeda emerges from this conflict strengthened? The other day, a group of Syriacs visited my offices. Syriacs are members of an ancient ethnic group, some might say an ancient nation. They have lived in the land now called Syria — it is from them that the name derives — since before the advent of Islam and the subsequent Arab invasions. They are Christians whose native tongue is Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus and other Jews of that era.

Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.