The Age and Fairfax Online

By Adam Lockyer

Last Thursday President Barack Obama announced that the United States would begin directly arming the Syrian rebels. This is a major shift in US policy. It's also the most risky foreign policy decision Obama has to date made.

For the past two years, the Obama administration has done everything it can to avoid being dragged into the Syrian Civil War. Obama legacies will include the successful withdrawal of American forces from Iraq and Afghanistan. He has no desire to see these overshadowed by American involvement in Syria.

Yet, Obama reluctantly made the decision to directly assist the Syrian rebels. It was a decision that went against his better judgment. So why did he change his mind?

On the face of things, the decision was the direct consequence of the forces of Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons. This was a reason, but not the reason.

For almost a year there has been international speculation that the Syrian government was using small amounts of chemical weapons against the rebels. In response, the US issued a deterrent threat. On 20 August 2012, Obama said: “A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilised.” The key words here are a “whole bunch”. It provided the Obama administration with some wriggle room as to when to respond.

I suspect that as reports began to trickle out of Syria over their use, Obama had wanted to deter the Syrian government from launching a massive strike using chemical weapons on civilians. This is what he meant on March 21 when he said:

“I've made it clear to Bashar al-Assad and all who follow his orders: We will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people, or the transfer of those weapons to terrorists. The world is watching; we will hold you accountable.”

So why now? I think that the decision to arm the rebels has more to do with the upcoming peace conference in Geneva than chemical weapons.

The US wants a negotiated settlement to the Syrian conflict. The American people and their government have no stomach for another war. All the opinion polls report that the overwhelming majority of Americans oppose US military intervention.

As such, a political outcome is America's only way forward.

The problem is that the Syrian government has recently had an influx of weapons and supply from Russia and Iran. In addition, well trained, disciplined and battle-proven Hezbollah militiamen have swept across the boarder. The Assad regime has put these reinforcements to good use recapturing the strategic town of Qusair and looks well positioned to make major inroads around Homs and Aleppo.

As the military balance tilts decisively towards the Assad loyalists, they will have few incentives to negotiate in Geneva next month. As long as they believe they can win militarily, they will have few reasons to want to talk their way to peace.

This is why the Obama administration has come out now to militarily support the rebels. He wants to even the military balance. Ideally, the US would like both sides to be roughly equal. If one side feels stronger, then their incentives will be to fight on. If the other side believes that it is significantly weaker, they will not only be concerned about an unfavourable political outcome, but also fearful of being at the mercy of the stronger side the moment they lay down their arms. Fear of bloody and brutal retribution is good motivation for both sides to fight on.

In the coming days and weeks we are likely to see the US supply the rebels with just enough arms, ammunition, equipment and training to halt the regime's advances. The CIA can only control how and by whom their weapons are used while they remain on the Turkish and Jordanian side of the border. Once they enter Syria they may end up in the hands of the radical Islamist elements within the Syrian rebels' camp.

As a consequence, Washington remains extremely cautious. Obama did not want to have to do this. And so he is likely to do just enough to balance the battlefield. Not one bullet, missile or mine more.

Few have understood America's true motivation in arming the rebels. Most have either simply followed the chemical weapons narrative or believe that the US thinks that arming the rebels can bring about the defeat of the regime. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon criticised Washington's decision to arm the rebels, warning that:

“There is no military solution to this conflict, even if both the government and the opposition, and their supporters, think there can be … The military path points directly towards the disintegration of the country.”

Contrary to Ban's understanding, I'm certain that the White House would absolutely agree with him.

This article was originally published at The Age and Fairfax Online