Arguments favoring American intervention on behalf of the Syrian rebels may have merit, but recent developments have reinforced Washington’s reluctance to engage in direct involvement in the bloody civil war. The latest news that Russia has sent advanced-technology missiles to Bashar Assad, the Syrian dictator, reinforces that reluctance.
The United States and other Western nations are sympathetic to the idea that Bashar Assad, whose family has held power in Damascus for more than 40 years, be deposed. And, with justifiable anger at the ruthless Syrian dictator, many well-meaning people practically begged the Western nations to help arm the rebels.
Washington’s approach has been to avoid direct intervention while trying to persuade all the world’s major powers to use their influence to persuade Assad to step aside, but all attempts to enlist the support of Russia and China failed.
The New York Times reported Friday that Moscow has sent advanced anti-ship cruise missiles to Syria, and that calls for an urgent review of Washington’s options. Russia previously had provided a less potent version of the missiles, the Times reported, but the new weapons system features advanced radar that greatly increases its value to Assad.
For their part, the Russians insist they are merely fulfilling existing contracts with Syria.
The debate thus becomes even more complicated. Meanwhile, evidence suggests that doubts about the unity, reliability and the long-term objectives of the rebels have been reinforced. Also, it is becoming impossible to forecast the consequences of Assad’s forced departure as Syria appears to be disintegrating as a civilized nation.
The most recent evidence is horrifying video footage of a Syrian rebel commander eating either the heart or the lung of a dead government soldier. The video does nothing to induce sympathy for the rebel cause and raises additional questions about the character and goals of the anti-Assad forces.
Initially there was speculation that the video might be propaganda spread by the Assad government, but then the rebel commander, identified as Khalid al-Hamad, publicly boasted that he had indeed mutilated the dead soldier, describing it as a justified act of revenge.
Meanwhile, Assad’s troops stand accused of multiple atrocities against rebels and civilians. And the resulting flight of Syrians to neighboring countries has seriously compounded the intractable problems in the region and raised tensions between Syria and its neighbors.
Until it is clear that the rebels are united, with shared political beliefs the United States can support, Washington must continue to avoid direct engagement in Syria. Assad’s access to these Russian missiles may make that strategy unavoidable anyway.