Looking for Obama's agenda in Syria

As killings in Syria worsen, more people look to Obama for action. But the mental preparation for action doesn't start with the White House.

Aleppo Media Center AMC/AP
Syrians in Aleppo search the rubble of buildings struck April 7 by government forces.

Many more people around the world are eyeing President Obama for clues as to whether he will take military action in Syria. Their reasons may be sound. March was the deadliest month in the civil war, with more than 6,000 dead. A fifth of Syrians have fled their homes, destabilizing the Middle East.

Overall, the number of killings is now more than 70,000, or about the same as all gun homicides in America over seven years. To many, such mounting numbers demand firm intervention.

Yet those scrutinizing Mr. Obama have it all wrong. Much to his credit, the president is eyeing them back. He keeps probing Congress, foreign allies, and the American people on whether they are mentally ready to take action against the ruthless, entrenched regime of Bashar al-Assad.

This isn’t “leading from behind.” Obama has seen too many wars go wrong in his lifetime without the groundwork of mental preparation. To counter massive evil acts, such as the current war crimes against civilians in Syria, far more people than the president must understand what good they would bring to a situation. Motives must be clear in order to rally the means to achieve them.

The White House has rightly waited for key members of the House and Senate to propose bills that would authorize specific military action in Syria. “Unless we change the dynamic ... Assad will continue to believe he can hold on to power,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, last week.

From mid-April to mid-May, the president will host separate visits from leaders of four countries already involved in trying to settle the Syrian conflict: the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Jordan, and Turkey. The White House hints that 2013 will be the year for a US focus on Syria.

These visits to the White House by Mideast leaders are aimed at finding common purpose for Syria’s future that will uplift the whole region. The conflict represents not only a struggle between a dictator and those seeking democracy but also a regional struggle between the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam. The United States can’t lead the way to settle that intra-Islamic struggle.

“What started out as a peaceful demand for dignity and freedom,” says Acting Assistant Secretary of State A. Elizabeth Jones, “has become one of the most devastating conflicts of the 21st century.”

For now, Americans remain uncertain as to what good they can do in Syria. Proposals to arm rebels or create a no-fly protective zone over rebel-held areas require certainty that the US is backing those rebel leaders who will eventually create a democratic, stable Syria. And any US arms must not reach radical, pro-Al Qaeda groups. Yet by not acting in Syria, the US also risks a collapse of the Assad regime that might result in the country’s stockpile of chemical weapons getting into the hands of terrorists.

In balancing these contending risks, the West and friendly Arab nations should agree on what values they offer Syria. Opposing evil isn’t enough – its hold on a country is more easily broken when its opposite is asserted.

Last week, Robert Ford, the US ambassador to Syria, told a Senate panel: “We need to weigh in on behalf of those who promote freedom and tolerance.” Indeed, the State Department is already training moderate political opponents of Mr. Assad how to run a democracy and manage a market economy.

Good can triumph in Syria if more people understand what they can do and how to achieve it. That moment may soon be arriving. But don’t look to Obama quite yet.

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