By Aamer Madhani and David Jackson, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - President Obama traveled a long and tortured path before
coming to the conclusion that it was necessary to provide direct
military aid to Syrian rebels trying to topple Bashar Assad's regime.
that he's agreed to send small arms and ammunition to the main rebel
group, the Supreme Military Council, the way forward may become more
Even as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle
increasingly call on Obama to decisively back the rebels, the president
is clear-eyed that the road to an endgame could involve the sort of
messy, long and complicated engagement he's tried to avoid.
president's first big test on his Syria policy - after the White
House's announcement that it was highly likely Assad deployed chemical
weapons against the opposition - comes Monday when Obama meets with
Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Group of Eight
summit in Northern Ireland.
"They don't want to see a downward
spiral. They don't want to see a chaotic situation in the region," said
White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes. "It's in
Russia's interest to join us in applying pressure on Bashar al-Assad in a
way that relinquishes his power and stature in Syria."
Russians, along with Iran and Hezbollah, have provided Assad's regime
with mortars, light artillery, antiaircraft guns, antitank weapons and
As Obama tries to convince Russia to give up Assad,
lawmakers are increasingly pushing for the president to at least provide
the same level of weaponry Russia has provided Assad's forces.
Robert Casey, D-Pa., told USA TODAY that the United States should
launch cruise missile strikes to ground the Syrian air force and create a
safe zone for rebels. Other lawmakers have called for establishing a
"We have to do something substantial now," Casey said.
remains concerned about providing sophisticated weaponry to the rebels
out of fear that they could end up in the hands of al-Qaeda-aligned
fighters among the rebels. It remains unclear what, if any, high-end
weaponry he's willing to give the rebels.
The White House has
shown little appetite for establishing a no-fly zone, something Rhodes
said cannot be a" silver-bullet" in a war in which Syrian rebels and
Assad's forces are in a block-by-block fight.
Anthony Cordesman, a
Middle East analyst at the Center for Strategic and International
Studies, said the administration certainly faces great risks in arming
the rebels. Cordesman said the "grim reality" is that the Syrian civil
war is part of a far broader power struggle that threatens to cause
convulsions throughout the region.
"To begin with, trying to remain half pregnant is not a strategy," Cordesman said.
crucial moment in the administration's Syria policy comes as Obama's
national security team begins a personnel reshuffling that will include
the elevation of aides who would seem more open to U.S. intervention and
the departure of National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, a consistent
voice of caution inside the White House when it comes to Syria. He is
set to leave the administration in the coming weeks.
appointed National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who worked for the State
Department during Bill Clinton's presidency, has often expressed regret
that the United States did not do more to prevent genocide in Rwanda.
Samantha Power, a former National Security Council aide to Obama who
has been nominated to replace Rice as U.S. ambassador to the United
Nations, made her name as a journalist writing about genocide and the
need for a more activist United States and United Nations.
and Power were among those who supported the White House backing
NATO-led operations in Libya in 2011 before the ouster of Moammar
Obama arrives at this moment on Syria after a long
history of skepticism that American action can make a difference in the
situation on the ground.
As the Arab Spring took hold in the
Middle East and North Africa in early 2011, the administration was
relatively quick to declare that the ouster of strongmen Zine Abbidine
Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen
and Gadhafi in Libya were necessary.
But as popular protests
spread through Syria in March 2011, the administration initially
resisted calls from hawks such as Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Lindsey
Graham, R-S.C., and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., who wanted to see the
president take a hard line on Assad
"There's a different leader in
Syria now," said then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in late
March 2011 - comments that drew the ire of some Republicans. "Many of
the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent
months have said they believe he's a reformer."
In April 2011,
Obama signed the first in a series of executive orders targeting Syrian
officials involved in human rights abuses with sanctions.
It wasn't until the middle of August 2011 that Obama, in coordination with other European leaders, called on Assad to resign.
year later, Obama declared that the use of chemical weapons by Assad's
regime would cross a "red line" that would trigger stronger U.S. action.
recently as a few weeks ago, in the aftermath of initial intelligence
reports that it was likely Syria used chemical weapons, Obama struck a
cautious tone about the way forward.
"When we rush into things,
when we leap before we look, then not only do we pay a price, but
oftentimes we see unintended consequences on the ground," Obama said.
"So it's important for us to do it right."
Now comes the difficult task of figuring out just what being "right" means.