Mr Obama's decision to arm Syria's rebels has been qualified by US officials in ways that may ultimately defeat the policy's purpose.
Small arms won't help Syria without a US political effort
The Obama administration's decision to arm Syria's rebels is welcome. But it is late, half-hearted and incomplete, and it has been qualified by US officials in ways that may ultimately defeat the policy's purpose.
As in Afghanistan, President Barack Obama seems to be entering Syria with caveats flying.
Mr Obama didn't bother to announce the policy shift himself. He left that to the deputy national security adviser, Benjamin Rhodes, whose remarks left more questions than answers. Mr Rhodes explained that the president had decided to assist the rebels because President Bashar Al Assad's regime had used chemical weapons. This was odd: the US administration had initially played down reports of chemical weapons use, to avoid being drawn into the Syrian conflict.
Mr Rhodes did not specify what types of weapons will be sent, saying only that the US would be "responsive to the needs" of rebel commanders. However, US officials told CNN that small arms, ammunition and possibly anti-tank weapons would be dispatched. Mr Rhodes also affirmed that Washington has "not made any decision" to pursue other military options such as establishing a no-fly zone. And he ruled out any deployment of US ground troops.
The Syrian commander expected to receive the weapons, Gen Salim Idriss, the head of the Free Syrian Army's Supreme Military Council, told the Daily Beast website on Sunday that he had not yet heard from the Americans. He seemed to confirm that, at least at the beginning, the US would send small arms and ammunition. Many observers believe that will not be enough to defeat the regime, which has warplanes and helicopters that the rebels have few means of countering.
The US hesitates to provide anti-aircraft missiles before it can be sure they will not end up in the hands of Jihadist groups, which might use them against civilian aircraft. But if the US does not create a no-fly zone over Syria, or allow the Europeans to do so, the benefits of its policy will be in doubt. After all, it is the regime's air superiority that has been most effective against the rebels. Unless this advantage is removed, the rebels can expect little success.
Mr Obama's turnaround was primarily a consequence of pressure building up at home. He had been criticised for having no policy on Syria and for allowing Iran, Hizbollah and Russia to help Mr Al Assad make strategic gains, as in the Hizbollah-led offensive that took Qusayr. Meanwhile, Washington was wasting time focusing on hopes for the Geneva II conference, which has been delayed.
It helped little that former President Bill Clinton added his voice to the chorus. At an event with Senator John McCain, the most prominent critic of the administration's approach to Syria, Mr Clinton was quoted by the newspaper and website Politico as saying: "Now that the Russians, the Iranians and Hizbollah are in there head over heels ... should we try to do something to try to slow their gains and rebalance the power so that these rebel groups have a decent chance, if they're supported by a majority of the people …?"
The Obama administration's intention is that with the weapons, the rebels will be able to deny Mr Al Assad full military superiority before the parties go to Geneva to negotiate - which some predict will not happen until 2014. But if small arms and ammunition will not do it, a more substantial American commitment, using air power, risks pushing the US into a confrontation with Russia and Iran, which Mr Obama does not want.
So the US must formulate a strategy that combines effective military assistance with a political project in Syria. It would have to begin by unifying the opposition around a specific political agenda, and creating a mechanism to reassure the Alawite community. The US must also use its influence to impose unity of purpose on Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, whose disagreements have fragmented the opposition. And the US must cause Gulf states to end funding by some of their citizens of the most extreme rebel groups.
It is not yet clear that the Obama administration has fully thought through its actions in Syria. Simply sending weapons does not, on its own, qualify as a policy, and indeed may be highly destabilising if it is not integrated into a coherent plan that involves negotiations with the reluctant Russians, and even indirectly the Iranians.
The evasive way in which Mr Rhodes described American intervention only reinforced the sense that Mr Obama wants to have his cake and eat it too: he wants Syria's rebels to reverse the gains of the regime and Hizbollah, but is not yet willing to commit to providing the whole arsenal that will be needed to break the stalemate. Even less is Mr Obama willing to lead a diplomatic campaign for a negotiated outcome, one that also stabilises Syria's neighbours.
It will be interesting to see whether the victory of Hassan Rowhani, the president-elect of Iran, creates an opening for some sort of package deal that would include Syria, Hizbollah, Iran's nuclear programme, and a lifting of western sanctions against Iran. For now, this is entirely speculative, but there is now a greater willingness in the US and Europe, and a need in Iran, which is suffering from harsh economic sanctions, to resume negotiations over what divides them.
Mr Obama is walking a fine line. If he gives the opposition largely ineffective weapons, this may, at best, prolong the deadlock. If he gives them weapons that turn the military tide, he will have trouble preventing a military victory that could break Syria apart and leave behind a debilitating political vacuum.
That's why the US must formulate a comprehensive strategy favouring the political and military objectives it seeks, while also contemplating a broader arrangement with Russia, and even Iran, that addresses their fundamental regional disagreements.
Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut.
On Twitter @BeirutCalling