Israel raises the stakes in Syria

President Obama faced growing pressure to intervene in Syria, after Israel launched air assaults on military facilities near Damascus.

What happened

The Obama administration faced growing pressure to intervene in Syria this week after Israel launched two devastating air assaults on military facilities near Damascus, heightening fears that the Syrian civil war could soon escalate into a wider regional conflict. Israel refused to comment on the strikes, but U.S. officials said the attacks were aimed at caches of advanced Iranian-built missiles bound for the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah—a longtime foe of Israel. Several thousand Hezbollah fighters are thought to be fighting alongside Syrian government troops against the largely Sunni Muslim opposition. President Bashar al-Assad said the airstrikes proved that Israel was masterminding the rebellion against his government and threatened retaliation.

For the first time, President Obama said the U.S. had “a moral obligation” to end the slaughter and ensure “a stable Syria.” But he said his “bottom line” was “the best interest of America’s security,” and that he wouldn’t order a military intervention based on unproven allegations that Assad’s regime had used deadly sarin gas against rebel soldiers. Last year, Obama warned that Syria would cross a “red line” if it used chemical weapons and trigger a U.S. response. But senior administration officials this week told The New York Times that Obama had ad-libbed the “red line” phrase, and that it had left him in a box, since he remains reluctant to commit any military forces to the conflict. A U.N. official said this week that evidence suggests that rebel groups, not the Syrian government, used the sarin. The White House, however, said it was “likely” that pro-Assad forces used the nerve agent.

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What the editorials said

“Welcome to the non-interventionist Middle East,” said The Wall Street Journal. When Syria’s uprising began two years ago, the Obama administration warned that U.S. intervention could result in “the rise of jihadists, the use of chemical weapons, and perhaps even a wider regional war.” So the U.S. stayed out—and “those bad results have happened in triplicate.” To minimize the damage, Obama has to fully commit to ousting Assad, arm pro-Western rebels, and enforce a no-fly zone across Syria.

The U.S. still has “no vital security interest at stake,” said Newsday, and this week’s Israeli attack doesn’t change that calculus. Israel was directly threatened by the long-range missiles it destroyed, but now that they’ve been eliminated, it wants no part of supporting Syria’s rebels. The rebels’ ranks “include radical Islamists and members of al Qaida,” so sending arms there would be reckless.

What the columnists said

The Obama administration has a bad case of Iraq syndrome, said Bill Keller in The New York Times. Haunted by that endless, disastrous conflict, the president is afraid to get the U.S. bogged down in a new Middle East quagmire. But “Syria is not Iraq.” This time “we have a genuine, imperiled national interest.” If Syria collapses, it might trigger a regional Sunni-Shiite war that would spread to Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon. The use of sarin gas should also spur Obama into action, said Emanuele Ottolenghi in Commentary If the rebels have gotten their hands on Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile, it will only be a matter of time before Islamic terrorists use these WMDs somewhere else in the world.

Flying missions over Syria—either to enforce a no-fly zone or attack military targets—would be a high-risk operation, said David Wood in First, the U.S. would have to eliminate “Syria’s extensive and sophisticated Russian-built air defenses.” Many missile sites are hidden in densely populated urban areas, so U.S. bombing raids would likely kill large numbers of civilians. And what if the Syrians succeed in shooting down one of our jets? Should we send in ground troops to rescue the pilot?

But the biggest argument against intervention is that no one can envision a good outcome, said Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker. Assad’s fall will inevitably result in a power struggle between rebel groups, as well as a wave of genocidal ethnic cleansing against Assad’s Alawite minority and Christians. And since “the overwhelming majority of the rebels are fighting for an Islamic republic,” supplying them with military hardware could put American weapons in the hands of al Qaida. As cruel as it sounds, the cost of trying to stop the carnage in Syria “may simply be too high.”

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