Associated Press

A Free Syrian Army fighter runs for cover Thursday in the Damascus suburb of Dhiyabieh during clashes with government forces, in this image taken from video obtained by the Shaam News Network.

Editorial: Why are we now getting involved in Syrian war?

Published: Friday, Jun. 21, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 12A

As the Obama administration slides further down the slippery slope into Syria's civil war by sending arms to the rebels, ask yourself these basic questions:

What is our national interest? Who among the rebels is a reliable ally to be trusted with U.S. weapons? What would qualify as success? What is our exit strategy?

If you don't have a clue, join the club. It's not your fault; it's because President Barack Obama hasn't clearly explained how Syria follows the core principles of any U.S. intervention.

He needs to do so – or reconsider getting further mired in Syria's civil war.

Obama's reticence reflects his ambivalence for providing small arms and ammunition to the rebels. It speaks volumes that he had White House underlings announce such a major policy shift last week.

More than two years into this war, the justification was that Obama had decided the Syrian regime had crossed a "red line" by killing at least 100 to 150 people with chemical weapons. But the timing had at least as much to do with the growing drumbeat for military action from inside and outside government.

Many hawks – notably Sen. John McCain, who made an ill-advised visit to the rebels in late May – aren't satisfied with just arming them; they're calling for U.S.-led airstrikes and a no-fly zone to cripple Syria's air force. So far, the White House is balking at that kind of escalation; it is categorically ruling out putting troops on the ground.

No doubt, Bashar Assad is a brutal despot who has shown not a hint of remorse for slaughtering civilians. The loss of an estimated 93,000 lives so far is an unconscionable tragedy; the estimated 1 million refugees is a humanitarian disaster. The rebels are losing ground as the regime receives more aid from Russia and Iran and manpower from Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based militant group backed by Iran.

But is there any reason to believe that arming the rebels – who include al-Qaida supporters, radical Islamists and others not friendly to the United States – will significantly improve the situation? What other steps might it take to end the fighting and force Assad to the negotiating table? And even if Assad were to depart, would any rebel group have enough legitimacy to actually govern?

Obama had ample opportunity to clarify matters on his foreign tour this week, especially after his sit-down with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He didn't take advantage. Instead, he merely repeated his goal of a peaceful, democratic and unified Syria without Assad in power.

Obama is right to be wary of getting bogged down in what is fast becoming a sectarian proxy war.

The Middle East is littered with cautionary tales.

Eighteen months after U.S. forces pulled out of Iraq, that country is descending back into Sunni-Shia violence as deadly as the worst of the fighting in 2006 and 2007. As the United States extricates itself from Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai's objections scuttled a scheduled meeting Thursday with the Taliban – our enemy for 12 bloody years – to try to start peace negotiations. Libya, where Obama worked with European and Arab allies to get rid of Moammar Gadhafi, is hardly an unqualified success, either.

Some lessons ought to be clear: It's impossible to predict how these interventions will work out. Any accomplishments could blow away like sand. U.S. intervention can play into the hands of al-Qaida.

With all those risks, the president must make a case to the American people that deeper involvement in this civil war is in our interests.

If he can't, he needs to stand up to McCain and others pounding the drumbeat for war.

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