The commentariat universally rejected my Apr. 11 column arguing that Western governments should "Support Assad" on the grounds that he is losing and we don't want the Islamist rebels to win in Syria but prefer a stalemate. An Arabic website in France threatened me.
Fine. But the Wall Street Journal today reports in "U.S. Fears Syria Rebel Victory, for Now" by Adam Entous and Julian E. Barnes that the Obama administration is in fact following my counsel. To start with, the U.S. government fears "an outright rebel military victory":
Senior Obama administration officials have caught some lawmakers and allies by surprise in recent weeks with an amended approach to Syria: They don't want an outright rebel military victory right now because they believe, in the words of one senior official, that the "good guys" may not come out on top.
Of course, fearing a rebel victory gets in the way of ousting the current regime, its goal, leading to a self-contradictory muddle:
This assessment complicates the White House's long-standing push to see President Assad step from power. It also puts a spotlight on the U.S.'s cautious approach to helping the opposition, much to the frustration of U.S. allies including France and the U.K., which want to arm Syria's moderate rebels. The result of this shift, these officials say, is the U.S. has sought a controlled increase in support to moderate rebel factions. … "We all want Assad to fall tomorrow, but a wholesale institutional turnover overnight doesn't make a whole lot of sense," a senior U.S. official said. "The end game requires a very careful calibration that doesn't tip the meter in an unintended way toward groups that could produce the kind of post-Assad Syria that we aren't looking for."
Trouble is, Washington is attempting to thread a needle that it lacks the finesse to achieve:
Administration officials fear that with Islamists tied to al Qaeda increasingly dominating the opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, too swift a rebel victory would undercut hopes for finding a diplomatic solution, according to current and former officials. It would also shatter national institutions along with what remains of civil order, these people say, increasing the danger that Syrian chemical weapons will be used or transferred to terrorists. …
Officials say it will require delicate maneuvering to restrain the influence of radicals while buying time to strengthen moderate rebels who Western governments hope will assume national leadership if Mr. Assad can be persuaded to leave. … By strengthening moderates, the U.S. wants to put pressure on Assad supporters to cut a deal that would preserve governing institutions. …
Comments: (1) Obviously, I am pleased to learn that the Obama administration quietly has adopted a sensible policy toward Syria. (2) Let's hope that its unrealistic plan to guide the "good guys" to rule the country will fade with added experience; and that it will instead follow a balance-of-power approach such as I advocate. (April 17, 2013)
Apr. 18, 2013 update: But the administration insists it does not want a stalemate. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, says that "It has never been our goal to see a prolonged conflict [in Syria]."
May 18, 2013 update: A developing consensus in Syria seems to be coalescing around the idea that foreigners don't really want anyone to win. Anne Barnard writes in the New York Times:
Mr. Assad's supporters have long contended that his wide array of foreign foes, including the United States, Israel and Sunni-led Persian Gulf states, benefit less from a resolution than from a prolonged Syrian conflict that weakens Mr. Assad and his allies, Iran and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group.
That view is increasingly shared by some rebel leaders, increasingly frustrated with the West's unwillingness to give them untrammeled support.