At the time of this posting, the civil war in Syria has been raging for two years, three months and three days. Bashir Al Assad and his supporters have dug in deeper than his enemies, or the West thought was possible. When the war broke out in March, 2011, most observers assumed it would last months and end with the removal of Assad from power. Over two years later, the war continues with no end result in sight. Assad remains in power, the opposition is suffering from an identity crisis and the death toll is approaching 100,000. Even more alarming is the fact that the tide seems to have turned in favor of Assad and the Syrian government.
Now, fairly late in the game, President Obama appears to be getting serious on Syria. Not in the fashion many of his supporters would prefer. US support for the Syrian opposition is coming in the form of small arms shipments, not humanitarian relief. Make no mistake about it, the Syrian population is suffering, however, that is not a priority for the United States at the moment. Toppling Assad is. Realism is winning out over liberal interventionism.
The Syrian conflct has developed into a complex multiplayer proxy war. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are funneling arms and money to an assortment of opposition groups with visions of a post-Assad Syria into an Islamic republic. Russia, Iran and Hezbollah are supporting Assad with an almost constant pipeline of money, materials and, in the case of Hezbollah, experienced fighters. Now, the US has thrown its support behind Salim Idriss with an arms program for the opposition.
The conflict is not going as well for the opposition as the United States wishes. An opposition victory appears less and less likely as time goes on. Supporting the opposition through Idriss gives strength to the possibility of a negotiated settlement to the conflict on terms not unfavorable to the moderate opposition groups. US military aid might also help blunt the Al-Qaeda supported Nusra Front rebel group from expanding its influence and power in the opposition movement.
Even the confirmed use of chemical weapons by Assad has not unified public opinion in the United States. Many people are wary about increased US involvement in Syria. The opposition is a hodgepodge of factions, some moderate, others extremist. There is no solid way for the US to guarantee that the weapons being provided do not fall into the hands of a group like the Nusra Front. Further, it will not be possible to guarantee that those weapons are not used in the future against US soldiers. Or, worse, against US citizens.
In any event, a proxy war is now underway in Syria. Any notions of liberal interventionism similar to Libya should be cast aside. This will not be a humanitarian war. Realist geopolitics will be the guiding force for US policies on Syria from here on out.