The US can either engage in the Middle East or disengage from it. The Obama administration appears to prefer the latter option. But disengagement doesn’t leave a vacuum. Rather, it leaves a space which is rapidly filled by advancing hostile interests – in the Syrian case Iran and Russia, with China as the silent additional partner.
These forces are currently backing the Assad dictatorship all the way. The Iranians, in particular, see the survival of the dictatorship as a cardinal interest. Should Assad or his regime survive in some form, this would represent a major strategic victory for the Iranians and their backers. It would keep alive the Iranian ambition of establishing a contiguous pro-Iran space from western Afghanistan to the Mediterranean Sea.
It would also convince regional elites that the Iranians are the people to align with if you want to stay in power. They will have backed their friends and been seen to prevail. This will be good for the enemies of the US, and therefore bad for the US. (…)
I understand well the argument that Sunni Islamists dominate the rebellion. My own view is that the organized, tight, Iran-led bloc remains by far the most pressing and dangerous enemy of the West in the region right now. Reality and history rarely give us the luxury of having only allies that are our ideological blood brothers. The 1939-45 period offers an example. The possibly dubious nature of our ‘allies’ should not be an excuse for paralysis in the face of an active enemy who has plainly declared his intention of replacing the US-led regional dispensation that has pertained in the region since 1991. It’s also important to note that there are significant secular elements in the FSA and the opposition. Still, these elements are nationalist rather than liberal-democratic in outlook.
Regarding the type of help, the list is a familiar one: arms, most importantly anti-aircraft weapons for the rebels, and a no-fly and no heavy armor zone in the north would be the most urgent first moves.
In other words, I think the Syrian situation presents an opportunity to deal the Iran-led regional bloc and its backers a very telling defeat. I think this opportunity should be taken, though I acknowledge the concerns regarding the people in the rebel movements and the ideas they support.