An Internationalized Conflict
Iran and Russia stepped up military supplies and Hezbollah dispatched reinforcements, enabling Assad's forces to gain the upper hand. That, in turn, drew in even more al-Qaeda and other Sunni militants. Journalists from the region are now reporting that these extremists have emerged as the dominant military force among the rebels.
Anne Barnard and Eric Schmitt reported for the New York Times that "As foreign fighters pour into Syria at an increasing clip, extremist groups are carving out pockets of territory that are becoming havens for Islamist militants, posing what United States and Western intelligence officials say may be developing into one of the biggest terrorist threats in the world today."
Similarly, Liz Sly reported for the Washington Post that "A rebranded version of Iraq's al-Qaeda affiliate is surging onto the front lines of the war in neighboring Syria, expanding into territory seized by other rebel groups and carving out the kind of sanctuaries that the U.S. military spent more than a decade fighting to prevent in Iraq and Afghanistan."
So, like a case of the Sorcerer's Apprentice, the neocons have helped whip up another new flood of trouble in the Middle East. But the neocons are not about to accept blame for the mess that is now sloshing around Syria. Thus, an alternative narrative is necessary: that it's all President Obama's fault for not committing the U.S. military to another invasion of a Muslim nation.
That is indeed the new conventional wisdom spreading across Official Washington: If only Obama had dispatched the U.S. Air Force to shoot down Syrian planes and bomb government troop positions -- while also arming the anti-Assad rebels with modern weapons -- all would be well. The opposition would have prevailed and a pro-Western (and pro-Israeli) democracy would be governing Syria.
Instead, according to this conventional wisdom, Obama dithered, dragging his heels on committing U.S. warplanes and weapons, even now only approving some light weapons if they can be channeled to carefully vetted moderate elements of the opposition.
But the neocon narrative ignores how messy and how dangerous a violent overthrow of another Arab government would have been. There would have been no assurance that the Sunni-led rebels would not have taken bloody revenge on the Alawites, Shiites and Christian sects that have been the backbone of Assad's regime.
There likely would have been Libyan-style chaos with Islamic militants still swarming into Syria to fill the political void. Indeed, the outcome might well have been the establishment of an Islamist regime representing the country's Sunni majority, replacing the relatively secular Assad government backed by the various Muslim and Christian minorities.
If indeed such an expectation would have been more realistic than the neocons' rosy scenario, Obama could be criticized more for his failure to press the Syrian rebels into accepting some power-sharing compromise with Assad's forces in 2011 or 2012 when the opposition's prospects were brighter.
However, Obama was involved in a bitter reelection battle with Republican Mitt Romney, who was assiduously courting the Israelis and portraying Obama as lacking sufficient ardor for the Jewish state. By the time Obama was sworn in for a second term in 2013, the battlefield had begun to swing toward Assad's advantage.
When the Obama administration did begin a push for a negotiated settlement this year, Assad was quick to agree but the splintered rebel coalition balked, demanding instead an escalation of military support from the West so the war could be tilted again into the rebels' favor.
That wishful thinking, however, has expanded the opening for al-Qaeda and other Sunni extremists, a development that was always predictable but one that the neocons don't want blamed on them. Thus, the new conventional wisdom pinning the evolving Syrian disaster on Obama.
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