The modern state of Syria is a country born out of World War I; a half-dozen tribal areas were carved out of the defeated Ottoman Empire and made into a single administrative region.
These areas had little in common except their dislike of their French rulers. When they weren't quibbling with each other, they were busy fighting the French. After four of those areas became the country named Syria and attained independence, governments fell with metronome-like regularity until 1970, when the Ba'athist party established a military dictatorship led by Hafez el-Assad.
The Ba'athist oligarchy is dominated by the country's Alawite minority and the Assad family. The Alawites are a Shiite sect, dependent on Iran for financial support. They also draw military support from Hezbollah, Iran's Lebanese client army.
The current Syrian civil war is being fought by the Ba'athists against a loose coalition of Sunni Muslims, whose primary backer is Saudi Arabia. In effect, the Syrian civil war is a proxy war between Saudis and Iranians. This war is a disaster in every way imaginable.
More than 93,000 people have been killed since full-scale fighting broke out in 2011. Almost 1.5 million Syrian civilians have been displaced from their homes.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, about 8,000 Syrians flee for their lives each day to Jordan, Iraq or Lebanon. The sheer volume of refugees threatens to destabilize those countries. This is an ugly war, even for this brutal part of the world.
Last week, the United States declared that it has evidence of Syria's use of sarin nerve gas on rebel troops, crossing a "red line" that would trigger American involvement in the war. At this time, there's considerable skepticism whether Assad actually did use sarin, but it appears that the U.S. will cross the Rubicon and ship weapons to the rebels.
Our country's history over the last 30 years or so suggests that it may not be our in our best interests to supply weapons to resistance fighters. In 1979, the CIA began arming the Mujahedeen resistance to the Soviet puppet government in Afghanistan. Under the "Reagan Doctrine" of globally supporting any and all anti-Soviet movements, the United States shipped billions of dollars' worth of arms to the Afghan resistance. That mountain of munitions migrated from the Mujahedeen to the Taliban, and later to al-Qaida, which used those very weapons to kill Americans in the region.
Sending in troops is even worse. When the Western coalition toppled the Iraqi government in 2003, it dismantled the only institution that could preserve any modicum of stability in the country, the Iraqi military. Eight years, 4,400 American lives and a trillion dollars later, the United States managed to disengage its military from Iraq. A side effect of that war was to remove Iran's most dangerous regional enemy, establishing Iran as the region's most powerful Islamic state (Iran is not an Arab country).
Were we to arm the Syrian resistance, we need to ensure that the weapons they receive don't wind up being used to threaten our allies in the region, either militarily or politically. And we must guarantee that no American troops wind up there. Also, if Turkish or Jordanian air forces were to crater Syria's airfields, it would lessen Syria's ability to bomb rebel positions and for Russia and Iran to resupply Assad, without direct American involvement.
America's diplomatic goal in Syria is to end the war and to depose Bashir el-Assad without creating another military entanglement.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration painted itself into a corner by promising to take action in response to Syria's using nerve gas, and we may have had no option but to ship weapons into the area.
Let's hope that we maintain enough leverage in the region to attain that goal and restore stability in a part of the world in which we have vital interests - without creating another military entanglement.