President Obama's move to fortify Syrian rebels with small arms and ammunition has war-weary Americans edgy.
Will munitions be enough to help rebels topple Syrian President Bashar Assad — or counterpunch until NATO troops possibly are marshaled?
Or will conditions lead to more American boots on the ground stuck in Middle Eastern quicksand?
Rachel Newcomb, director of the Middle Eastern and North African Studies minor at Rollins College, discusses the implications in an email interview with the Sentinel editorial board.
An edited transcript follows.
Q: Why should what happens in Syria matter to Central Floridians?
A: Setting aside humanitarian concerns, which include estimates of more than 90,000 killed and 1.7 million refugees, the Syria situation is one that all Americans should be following.
Although the U.S. has initially offered small arms only to the rebels, this could turn into a larger military involvement. With the economy in the shape that it's in, can the U.S. afford to get embroiled in another prolonged military intervention?
Q: Why do you think the U.S. decided to get involved in the Syrian conflict now?
A: The White House has cited firm evidence that the Assad regime is using chemical weapons, which Obama said in March represented a "red line" that Syria must not cross.
The U.S. is also concerned that the rebels now seem to be losing, especially after the Syrian army captured the rebel stronghold of Qusair earlier this month.
Domestically, there has been significant pressure from some U.S. senators to get involved because of fears of the increasing influence of Hezbollah and Iran in the region.
Q: Should the U.S. be getting involved?
A: Syria is a country with extremely complex divisions along ethnic and religious lines, and staying out of the situation until now has been a wise move. The U.S. needs to be extremely careful, because this could easily turn into a much larger and more prolonged military conflict.
Q: What are the risks of U.S. involvement?
A: One risk is that some of the rebels that the U.S. is arming are associated with radical Sunni militant groups that include al-Qaida. Providing small arms may also not be enough to turn the tide in the rebels' favor, in which case there will be calls for the U.S. to enforce a no-fly zone. This would require even greater military intervention.
In the event of a larger conflict, our other Muslim allies in the region probably will not offer significant military assistance.
If Assad is ousted, it's also unlikely that a new regime would be friendly to U.S. interests. A post-Assad Syria is likely to be lawless and highly unstable, with the possibility of devastating ethnic and sectarian conflicts and an even greater loss of life.
Q: Are the risks of not getting involved greater?
A: Those in favor of involvement will argue that if we don't get step in, Iran and Hezbollah, who support the Assad regime, will have even greater power in the region.
If the evidence that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons is truly conclusive, the Obama administration may risk a loss of credibility by not following through on its promise to take action. Iran, for example, might see a U.S. failure to step in as evidence that it can continue to develop its nuclear program without repercussions.
Q: Do you think U.S. involvement will make a difference, since it's limited to small arms?
A: U.S. involvement might be limited to small arms now, but this is likely to change if that level of support doesn't make a difference.
Diplomatic ties with Russia will also be threatened, since Russia has significant interests in Syria and will veto any resolutions to support a no-fly zone. If the U.S. is pressured to get more deeply involved, we could see another major military conflict along the lines of Iraq.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun