The debacle in Syria is the definition of a no-win dilemma for the United States. No wonder President Barack Obama has been reluctant to act on this complex, treacherous foreign policy challenge that is likely to end badly no matter what we do.
The appalling use of chemical weapons by President Bashar al-Assad and his army, killing tens of thousands of his own people, forced Obama's hand. The United States could not ignore that blatant flouting of international law and basic humanity. Intervention is the right thing to do. But Americans should have no illusion that it will end well.
The hope is that pressure on Assad will bring about a peaceful transition to a representative government that provides stability to Syria and the Middle East. The Clinton administration's no-fly zone in the Serbians' war on Bosnia accomplished this. But Syria is different. The leadership of the uprising now appears to have links to al-Qaida and Hezbollah and, for U.S. interests, may be worse than the butcher Assad.
Still, we have to stand against the slaughter if we can help stop it.
Secretary of State John Kerry argued Wednesday for air strikes on Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles. Kerry has been a proponent of providing more arms to moderate Syrian rebels, which sounds reasonable -- but just what constitutes a moderate Syrian rebel?
The Supreme Military Council, the umbrella rebel organization in Syria, is loaded with leaders who would like to impose Islamic law. And the al-Nusra Front, the al-Qaida-aligned force fighting in Syria's largest city, has been declared a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. None of the major rebel groups is a likely long-term ally.
If U.S.-aided rebels oust Assad, we may have some leverage. But the new government will be packed with radicals. Remember the U.S. support for the Taliban in Afghanistan fighting the Soviet Union 35 years ago?
But leaving Assad in power is more distasteful. A U.N. report released this month said, "War crimes and crimes against humanity have become a daily reality in Syria where the harrowing accounts of victims have seared themselves on our conscience."
Assad has the backing of Iran and Russia, whose President Vladimir Putin counts him as his biggest ally in the Middle East. Putin will turn on Assad only if he is assured of a friendly successor. Good luck with that.
These are the realities that have kept Obama out of it. The use of chemical weapons changes the game. The Syrian people are victims, and we have to be on their side. But let's not harbor illusions about what we are doing. The leaders we help in Syria could prove as distasteful to us -- or more so -- than the murderous Assad.