There is never a clear winner in any war waged in the Middle East. One conflict simply sets the stage for the next. In the case of Syria, a two-way fight could morph into a three-way, or even four-way struggle.
Committing American personnel to any conflict in that part of the world is like waving a red flag in the face of a bull – it invites a reaction. Think back to the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983. It was not as if the US was conducting widespread combat operations in Lebanon, although we did shell Islamic and Syrian positions to support Lebanese troops engaged in repelling the insurgents. The Marines simply became a target out of sectarian hatred perpetrated by Islamic radicals.
Should we trust the Free Syrian Army, one of the two major groups challenging the government? Its leader, former Syrian Army general Salim Idris, talks like a moderate. He at least has an understanding of command and control, something you would not find in a ragtag element.
But what are the chances of Idris overcoming rebel extremists who can count on regular support from al Qaeda militants in Iraq? Just because they share a common enemy today does guarantee they will be on the same side tomorrow. Saudi Arabia is also supporting the rebels, but can we be assured weapons are going to the moderates? Since Saudi Arabia receives its primary military support from the US, it is reasonable to assume it is our weaponry reaching the rebels.
Jordan requested and will receive Patriot missile batteries and combat air support from the US. The former are purely defensive. However, the aircraft could be drawn into offensive action over Syria.
But by whom?
Certainly, Syria’s Assad would not want US planes bombing government positions. The rebels, on the other hand, would love nothing better than to drag the US directly into the conflict – on their side. You could see a scenario where rebels stage an attack within Jordan and make it appear as if it was done by pro-Assad government Hezbollah fighters. The US could be duped into escalating its role; once that happens, there is little chance of dialing back.
That’s the problem in a civil war involving three or more factions backed by multiple external governments. You could easily have one side play one group against another – even an ally against an ally.
The Syrian civil war is a round-robin tournament with any number of possible outcomes, none of which would be favorable to the United States or its allies in the region.
Former President Clinton’s and Senator John McCain’s bellicose rhetoric is not helping matters. They would commit American forces without fully understanding the complex relationships among the factions and their sponsors.
We should limit our activities to defensive measures in Jordan and Israel. This war will drag out for years. We will have plenty of time to change our minds down the road, if necessary.