On Tuesday, President Obama said the U.S. recognizes a Syrian opposition group as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, perhaps raising more issues than the announcement resolves. In an interview with ABC’s Barbara Walters, he said that the Syrian Opposition Coalition has brought together enough factions to have earned the acknowledgement:
“Obviously, with that recognition comes responsibilities, to make sure that they organize themselves effectively, that they are representative of all the parties, [and] that they commit themselves to a political transition that respects women’s rights and minority rights.”
The administration may have felt pressure from other quarters to take this step. Britain and the European Union have already done so. Nevertheless just yesterday, one of the rebel factions fighting with the coalition, Al Nusra Front, was declared a foreign terrorist group by the U.S., and one that is allegedly affiliated with Al Qaeda in Iraq. Obama acknowledged the difficulty this presents, saying:
“Not everybody who is participating on the ground in fighting Assad are people that we are comfortable with. There are some who I think have adopted an extremist agenda, an anti-U.S. agenda, and we are going to make clear to distinguish between those elements.”
But how will the distinction be made? It’s because the U.S. can’t tell the difference between these elements that it won’t be providing arms to the rebels. Otherwise, they might be arming anti-American factions or losing control of where the weapons end up. Nor will the U.S. make airstrikes, or enforce a no-fly zone. But, according to The New York Times, this withholding of military might, in itself, creates a lot of anti-American sentiment. While the U.S. has thus far supplied humanitarian aid, plus support for the coalition to provide public services, what does that mean in a country that has seen over 40,000 deaths in less than two years? What, exactly, are we accomplishing?
Nor does the American public have an appetite for yet another military engagement. If anything, the public sentiment has been to disengage from the Middle East and bring our troops home. No doubt, the administration is hoping that an increased show of support for the rebels will encourage Syria’s President Bashar Assad to step down without undertaking the world’s worst fear–namely, the use of chemical weapons against his own people. A further show of muscles takes place on Wednesday as the U.S and other allies supportive of the rebels gather for a meeting in Morocco.
President Obama is trying to walk a fine line between support and non-involvement, between peaceful intervention and armed intervention, between backing a rough, loosely-knit association of disparate factions and insisting on civil rights across the board. The U.S. hasn’t yet found a country where that kind of balance has been possible. It hasn’t yet found a country where it could distinguish between the pro-U.S. elements and the anti-U.S. ones.
What makes our government think Syria will be any different?
You can see the video of Barbara Walters’ interview with Obama here: