WASHINGTON In Syria, the Obama administration seems to be stumbling back to the future: An old-fashioned proxy war, complete with the usual shadowy CIA arms-running operation, the traditional plan to prop up ostensible "moderates" whose prospects are doubtful and, of course, the customary shaky grasp of what the fighting is really about.
This will not end well.
It is tragic that more than 90,000 people have been killed in the bloody Syrian conflict, with more than a million displaced. But I have heard no claim that President Obama's decision to arm the rebels will halt or even slow the carnage. To the contrary, sending more weapons into the fray will likely result in greater death and destruction, at least in the short term.
So this is not promising as a humanitarian intervention. And if the aim is to punish dictator Bashar al-Assad for his apparent use of chemical weapons, surely there are measures a missile strike on the regime's military airfields, for example that would make the point without also making an open-ended commitment.
Why decide now to announce stepped-up direct support for Gen. Salim Idriss and his rebel forces? It is surely not a coincidence that the Syrian military with the help of Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia backed by Iran has been pulverizing the rebels in recent weeks and now threatens to recapture Aleppo, the country's commercial hub.
Hence, a complicated proxy war: The United States supports Idriss. Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are U.S. allies, send money and arms to competing rebel factions that dream of turning Syria into an Islamic republic. Russia, Iran and Hezbollah are supporting Assad with weapons, money and in the case of Hezbollah well-trained troops. The rebel side is mostly Sunni; the government side largely Shiite.
As I said, this will not end well.
President Obama's reluctance to get dragged into this morass has been commendable, but now his ambivalence and caution become liabilities. Iran's most important ally in the Arab world is Syria. Russia's only military base outside of the former Soviet Union is in Syria. Does Obama care as much as those nations' leaders do about who wins the war? If not, what's the point?
It could be argued that providing Idriss with light arms and ammunition is a way to equip moderate, secular forces for their inevitable fight against Islamists in a fractured post-Assad Syria. But this is moot if Assad crushes the rebellion and holds on. Accordingly, U.S. aid reportedly may include some heavier weapons for use against tanks and aircraft. The CIA will take the lead in transferring the arms and training the rebels to use them, according to The Washington Post.
Perhaps bolstering Idriss can at least buy time for negotiations to produce a political settlement, which is what Obama has said he prefers. For a long time, Russia balked at joining the call for an international peace conference. Now that momentum on the battlefield has shifted and the Assad regime is in a stronger position, Russia is more willing to summon everyone to the table but the Obama administration is no longer in such a big hurry.
Not every slope is slippery, but this one looks like a bobsled run. It was August 2011 when Obama issued a statement declaring that "the time has come for President Assad to step aside." Now that the president has put muscle behind those words, it will be difficult for the United States to accept any other outcome.
There will be pressure to impose a no-fly zone to neutralize Assad's devastating air power. There will be pressure to contain the war so it does not spill beyond Syria's borders and destabilize our allies in Turkey and Jordan, or our sort-of, kind-of allies in Iraq. There will be pressure to alleviate the immense suffering of the Syrian people. Perhaps all of this can be accomplished without putting American lives at risk. I doubt it.
Above all, there will be pressure to win a proxy war that Obama never wanted to fight. This is how quagmires begin, with one reluctant step after another toward the yawning abyss. (See: Vietnam.)
We do sometimes win proxy wars in Afghanistan, for example, where the CIA helped the warlords defeat the mighty Soviet army. In the process, however, we created the chaotic power vacuum that allowed al-Qaeda to set up shop and ultimately launch the 9/11 attacks.
I hope I'm wrong but fear I'm right: This will not end well.
Eugene Robinson's email address is email@example.com.