The announcement that the United States and Russia will hold an international conference on the Syrian civil war should quiet calls by Senate hawks for U.S. military intervention on behalf of the rebels. It is far from assured that Russia, the main ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, is suddenly serious about stopping a two-year-old war that has killed 70,000 people. But exhausting the search for a political solution is better than adding firepower on the ground, which will only increase the death toll, harden Assad's resolve and push Russia further away from being helpful.
Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain and others are goading President Barack Obama to supply the rebels with direct military aid. Their line of thinking is that the United States could alter the balance of the war by arming the rebels and by using airstrikes against Syrian military assets — without the risk of putting American boots on the ground. It is a tidy narrative that ignores the reality of escalating military conflict; would the United States, for example, not encroach upon Syrian soil to rescue a downed American pilot? And it avoids the larger question of why the United States should take ownership of what's already a murky and complex security crisis.
Obama brought this problem partly upon himself by declaring in August that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrians would constitute a "red line" that would prompt the administration to rethink its opposition to arming the rebels. It was an off-the-cuff remark that was a mistake, but that lapse in judgment should not lead to a more serious one. The United States has increased nonlethal military aid and humanitarian assistance, and the White House is considering a range of direct military support in the wake of allegations that Assad's forces used chemical weapons on the Syrian people. The substance of those charges is unclear, and there are reports, too, that the rebels may have used sarin gas.
The administration needs to nail down the facts on whether either side used the nerve agent. If the Iraq War taught us anything, it is to get the intelligence right before the United States commits its forces, treasury and credibility on a military campaign to oust a foreign regime. Obama needs to explain what America's interests in Syria are and how they are promoted by a rebel movement that has no unifying structure or shared ideology.
The announcement Tuesday of the international conference with Russia to be held later this month buys the United States some time. McCain and others who favor a military route should not be so quick to use Obama's poor choice of words to force another military adventure. At the very least, the White House needs time to think through such a strategy and to build a broader international coalition. Americans also need to better understand the ramifications of flooding more arms into the porous security environment of the Mideast. If a decade of war taught this nation anything, it's the need for caution and a level head.