Our co-blogger and Dan Drezner independently suggested that the United States might be arming the rebels as part of a deliberate strategy to prolong the civil war. I found the argument about the aims convincing, but argued that the costs of such a strategy outweighed the benefits, compared with doing nothing. Kevin Drum expressed doubts that the Obama administration might be so Machiavellian.
We now have evidence that Kevin Drum was correct. The New York Times reports that the flow of American arms and training to the rebels is risible at best. Neither training nor materiel will arrive for months, and the latter won’t go beyond small arms and ammunition. A grand plan to keep Syria in chaos this is not.
So what is it? Two non-exclusive possibilities come to mind. The first possibility is that the Obama administration is doing the minimum necessary to head off domestic controversy. After all, President Obama declared that the use of nerve gas would bring consequences. Once the evidence mounted that Assad had indeed used nerve gas, then the Administration needed to do something. The program described by the Times appears close to the minimum value of something.
The second possibility is that the Administration sees an opportunity to seize control of Arab arms shipments to the rebels:
After the announcement, one senior Arab official said the United States would act like a “quarterback” — coordinating not only American arms shipments but also expanded deliveries of weapons from other allies, and probably providing opposition groups with intelligence reports on the movements of Syrian government forces.
If Qatar and Saudi Arabia really have agreed to let the United States coordinate their arms shipments, then the Obama administration has won a significant victory that will make the United States more secure. The problem is that the quote from the anonymous Arab official is the only proof given.
In short: We are not arming the rebels in order to prolong the civil war; the scale of our aid is too small and too back-loaded. We may be trying to take control of Qatari and Saudi arms shipments, but there is no direct evidence for this. We are most likely, then, simply doing the minimum needed to mollify domestic and allied pressure to intervene.
Not terribly satisfying, but grand strategy these days is really not like Game of Thrones.