Beyond the ‘red line’ in Syria

In this June 5, 2013 photo released, by the Syrian official news agency SANA, a damaged church is seen in Qusair town, Syria. (AP Photo/SANA)


Too little too late? Or too much too soon?

Those are only two of the high-stakes questions raised by President Barack Obama’s decision to finally send arms to Syria’s rebels. The White House announced that policy shift Thursday, then added Friday that the U.S. will “dramatically” increase its support for the coalition of groups striving to overthrow dictator Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime.

President Obama has repeatedly warned Col. Assad not to cross the “red line” by using chemical weapons against the rebels. So with new evidence confirming that the brutal, dynastic government has done just that, arming the opposition looks like the only responsible option.

More than 90,000 Syrians have been killed in that nation’s civil war since it began two years ago — many of them civilians slaughtered in government-inflicted atrocities.

That makes a strong case for backing the rebels while overlooking their troubling affiliations.

However, as America ups its ante in Syria, our leaders should keep their eyes wide open to the fact that most of the rebel groups are not just infiltrated, but dominated, by Islamic radical terrorists.

They also should ponder these pressing puzzles:

What if arms shipments alone aren’t enough to oust Col. Assad? And if the rebels do prevail, what happens next?

The old maxim, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” retains tangible validity in Syria and beyond. Certainly Israel, our best friend in the Mideast, is following that adage’s advice by arming the rebels.

However, siding with Syria’s rebels remains a hazardous proposition.

Some critics reasonably fault President Obama for waiting too long to supply arms to the rebels. Last August, when he first used the “red line” wording, the rebels appeared to be gaining ground. But this year, government forces have gained the upper hand. Col. Assad’s goon squads have been bolstered by arms from Russia and fighters from Iran-sponsored Hezbollah.

On Friday, Syrian rebel groups stressed their desperate need of heavy weaponry, not just the small arms and ammunition that President Obama reportedly has agreed to provide.

And though the White House says it doesn’t plan to impose a no-fly zone in Syria, some high-level U.S. military strategists have already recommended that move.

Why? Because the Syrian government still packs considerable air power — a huge edge over the rebels.

But implementing a no-fly zone over Syria would be much tougher than it was in Libya two years ago, when NATO seized control of the skies there to help rebels overthrow — and ultimately kill — Col. Moammar Gadhafi. That concern would be intensified if Russia follows through on its agreement to send more air-defense missiles to Col. Assad.

As for the idea of the U.S. training rebels in Jordan near the Syria border, that also would deepen our commitment — and our risks.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham has been an ardent advocate for assistance to the Syrian rebels. He and Sen. John McCain issued this statement Thursday: “The president’s ‘red line’ has been crossed. U.S. credibility is on the line. Now is not the time to merely take the next incremental step. Now is the time for more decisive actions.”

How decisive? And assuming those “more decisive actions” facilitate victory for the rebels, then what?

President Assad needs to go, but Americans should have no illusions about the nature of our newfound “allies” in Syria.