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Half measures will fail in Syria

In this Friday June 14 2013 citizen journalism image provided by Edlib News Network ENN Syrian rebels gather top tank

In this Friday, June 14, 2013 citizen journalism image provided by Edlib News Network, ENN, Syrian rebels gather on top of a tank they took after storming the Iskan military base in Idlib province, northern Syria. After weeks of fighting the rebels captur

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Updated: July 19, 2013 6:15AM

We’re about to see whether Washington can micromanage a civil war.

The general idea from President Barack Obama is that U.S.-supplied arms — machineguns and maybe anti-tank weapons, but not anti-aircraft rockets or logistical support through a no-fly zone — can be funneled to “moderate” rebels in Syria. The goal seems to be to reverse the surging fortunes of dictator Bashar al-Assad and force him to the negotiating table and out of power while denying victory to the al-Qaida-affiliated forces that, by all accounts, have proved to be the most effective fighters in the two-year-old rebellion.

That’s a tall order. Most observers say it’s too little, too late in a war where momentum has shifted to Assad and that has already killed 93,000 people. Obama himself doesn’t seem to have much enthusiasm for this change from his previous policy — the wise one, in my view — of avoiding military involvement. Not only did he not announce his new direction, but there’s been nothing from the secretary of defense, the high military command or the State Department. Instead, Obama instructed a deputy national security adviser to tell the press corps about the new strategy.

The logical conclusion is that his heart isn’t in it, that sending weapons to Syria is the exact opposite of what Obama wants to do — which is avoid another war in the Middle East. That can’t help but telegraph a lack of resolve that only undermines the president’s strategy.

Plenty of determination is on display from Assad and his allies — Russia, Iran and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militants in Lebanon who put boots on the ground to help the dictator turn the tide of war. Obama wanted to use this week’s Group of Eight summit in Northern Ireland to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to modify his position.

Good luck on that. While the summit produced diplomatic language of hope, Putin has shown unwavering support for Assad in words — sneering that Syrian rebels “kill their enemies and eat their organs” — and in deed — supplying the regime with weapons, including pledges of advanced air defense missiles that would make any U.S. attempt to create a no-fly zone in Syria a hazardous undertaking.

Obama may have had no alternative but to provide lethal aid after U.S. intelligence confirmed Assad had crossed Obama’s “red line” by using sarin gas against the rebels. The sudden reversal of the fortunes of war in Assad’s favor may have been a factor. Another prod to action may have been hopes a higher profile U.S. effort might stem the metastasizing of the revolt into a regional sectarian war. But that genie is out of the bottle, with Sunnis and Shiites killing each other in Lebanon and Iraq, and other Mideast countries choosing sides.

As much as Obama and our European allies hope for a political solution in Syria, it’s not likely. Assad won’t go to talks that Obama insists must end with Assad out of power when the Syrian dictator and his allies are winning. Rebels won’t go with only a weak hand to play.

What’s the likely outcome now? An Assad-Russian-Iranian-Hezbollah victory? A surprise turnabout in favor of the rebels that installs the world’s first al-Qaida regime in Damascus? A stalemate, breakup of Syria and chaos? All bad outcomes. But it’s hard to see how Obama’s small-arms shipments will change the region’s dynamics. A mega storm fed by powerful and warring currents of Islamist fanaticism, ancient sectarian hatreds, democratic aspirations and authoritarian regimes determined to hold power is engulfing the Middle East. Such hurricane-strength forces can’t be micromanaged from Washington.

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