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Editorial: Obama right to show restraint in Syria

In this June 5 2013 phoreleased by Syrian official news agency SANA damaged street is seen Qusair town Syria. Syrian

In this June 5, 2013 photo released, by the Syrian official news agency SANA, a damaged street is seen in Qusair town, Syria. Syrian troops and their Lebanese Hezbollah allies captured a strategic border town Wednesday after a grueling three-week battle, dealing a severe blow to rebels and opening the door for President Bashar Assad's regime to seize back the country's central heartland. The regime triumph in Qusair, which Assad's forces had bombarded for months without success, demonstrates the potentially game-changing role of Hezbollah in Syria's civil war. (AP Photo/SANA)

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Updated: July 10, 2013 6:22AM

President Barack Obama is getting flak for not providing more vigorous support for the rebels in Syria’s civil war — such as arming them or establishing a no-fly zone over the country. Our view is that his cautious, sober, restrained policy is the right one.

We don’t know a lot about the rebels in this ugly war, and what we do know offers little hope that the United States can play a role that won’t come back to haunt us — as in Libya where four Americans were murdered by terrorists in the post-liberation chaos.

Yes, Syria is a much bigger deal than Libya — it’s located on a fault line between adherents of Shia and Sunni Islam, it’s strategically situated between Iran and its terrorist proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon, it’s already degenerated into a bitter sectarian war, and it’s further complicated by Russia’s arming of dictator Bashar al-Assad in a clear indication of Moscow’s determination to prevent the fall of his regime.

Libya had none of these complications. The big push to topple Moammar Gadhafi came from European nations worried that his announced intention of mass murder against his people would unleash a tide of refugees into the European Union. The potential humanitarian disaster persuaded Susan Rice, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to advocate for U.S. air, logistical and intelligence support for Libyan rebels. For our part, we were never enthusiastic about U.S. involvement in the Libya venture because Obama never consulted Congress or demonstrated that a vital national interest was involved.

Despite the enormity of the Syrian humanitarian crisis — 80,000 dead and millions made refugees — neither Rice, Obama’s newly minted national security adviser, nor Samantha Power, the new U.N. ambassador and an expert on genocide who also endorsed the Libya enterprise, are reported to be pushing for more U.S. intervention. With good reason. Fighters affiliated with al-Qaida and other Islamist terrorist organizations quickly assumed the lead role in the war against the Assad regime and are admired for their prowess.

Obama’s critics say that happened because the president wouldn’t arm the rebels at the start, as some of his advisers recommended. Nonsense. Sorting out who are the good guys in the middle of a civil, sectarian war is a fools’ errand. And which of the uprisings known as the “Arab Spring” hasn’t been hijacked or, at the very least, influenced by extremist Islamist factions?

If ever there was a time for a U.S. intervention — and we don’t think there was — that time is past. The Islamists are firmly in control of the rebellion, though the war is not going so well for them now that Assad’s forces have recaptured a strategic town, seeming to cement his control on the Shiite-Alawite parts of Syria.

Some will see this as a U.S. retreat from the Middle East. We suspect most Americans are weary of a decade of war — who wants to see a U.S. airman shot down enforcing a no-fly zone? — and fed up with the never-ending turmoil of the region. We actually have only one friend there — Israel. Saudi Arabia is said to be an ally, but it is the theological source of the radical brand of Islamism that is burning through the Middle East and regularly threatens the West with terrorism. Egypt has maintained its three-decade-old peace treaty with Israel mainly because America paid it to do so with generous military aid. Jordan is touted as a moderate Arab state but, even though it has millions of Palestinian refugees living in its borders, it has done little to promote an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

The truth is that the forces shaping the Middle East are raging far beyond Washington’s control. That’s not to say that the Obama administration shouldn’t be on the lookout for any opportunity to influence events there. It’s only to say such opportunities will be rare.

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