In Syria, US mission creep with moral creep

President Obama is leaning toward providing nonlethal military equipment to certain rebels in Syria. Doing so runs moral risks. But doing nothing to stop the violence is also a moral risk. Can the US walk this fine line?

Hamid Khatib/Reuters
Syrian refugee girls attend class at the Bab Al-Salam refugee camp in Azaz, near the Syrian-Turkish border Feb. 27. REUTERS/

Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday that the United States would not leave the Syrian opposition “dangling in the wind” about American support for its democratic cause.

“We are determined to change the calculation on the ground for President [Bashar] al-Assad,” Mr. Kerry said.

Note the words “on the ground.” His comment hints at a major shift in President Obama’s strategy toward Syria. On Thursday in Rome, some 100 nations that back regime change in Damascus will meet to decide how to increase their influence in the nearly two-year-long conflict in which neither side is winning.

Because of lack of direct intervention, the US and other countries are losing leverage with the opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Coalition. And radical Islamic groups are gaining support. Pressure is mounting on the US to provide at least defensive military equipment, such as body armor, night vision goggles, and military vehicles.

If Mr. Obama moves toward providing such aid directly to rebels, he would enter a rabbit hole of moral choices. What if certain rebels have slaughtered pro-Assad civilians? What if they use such equipment for that purpose again? What if they pass US equipment to terrorist groups? 

Such issues mean that Obama must make it clear to the American people that the US is engaging with possibly unsavory people merely as a way to guide events toward a positive outcome. His tactics may be morally uncertain but his goal must not be.

To be sure, not doing more to oust Mr. Assad has its own moral dilemma. More than 70,000 people have been killed since the uprising began. Assad has had ample opportunity to step down. The US and other nations have backed numerous diplomatic initiatives. Now Obama seems ready to try “hold your nose” diplomacy by backing carefully selected rebels.

The US is hardly new to such morally ambiguous tactics. In 2005, the US worked with Sunni tribal leaders in Iraq to end their support of Al Qaeda. Washington also engaged political leaders of the Irish Republican Army to bring peace to Northern Ireland. In 1980, the US voted to seat the Khmer Rouge at the United Nations. It held talks in 1995 with Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic – in Ohio. Franklin Roosevelt had to deal with Joseph Stalin, and Richard Nixon with Mao Zedong.

In such cases, the intent is to end violence, not broaden it, and to extend freedom, not restrict it. The main strength of the US in the world has been its moral standing. To enter into a temporary alliance with questionable groups must be done carefully.

As Portia says in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” “How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world.”

Doing nothing in Syria to directly end the fighting has become an immoral choice. Assad is even raining down Scud missiles on civilians in the city of Aleppo. Now, if the US provides military equipment to rebels who are the “good guys,” it is doing something. In this case, it is the higher moral right.

This may be “realism” in foreign policy but it must be done to uplift the moral behavior of rebels clearly in favor of democracy.

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