“The United States will not have the luxury of standing aloof from what is happening in Syria under any circumstances,” Frederic Hof, who left the Obama administration in September, said at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “One way or the other, the United States is going to be sucked into this.”
The nearly 23-month-old uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has threatened to engulf Syria’s neighbors. Last week, Israel conducted an airstrike on a military target inside Syria that drew an angry response from the Assad regime and its regional ally, Iran.
While forecasting the United States will be drawn ever more deeply into the conflict, Mr. Hof said he did not support strategic bombing campaigns on Syrian targets or putting U.S. troops on the ground.
“The question now … is whether or not we can shape [on outcome] on the margins,” he added.
Top Pentagon officials revealed for the first time on Thursday that they supported a recommendation last year from then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and then-CIA Director David Petraeus that the U.S. arm the Syrian rebels.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged Pentagon support for the plan during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
The New York Times first reported the plan on Feb. 2. It said the White House rejected the recommendation over concerns it could draw the U.S. into the Syrian conflict and that the arms could fall into the wrong hands.
“It’s a bit more complicated than just the shorthand of ‘arm the rebels,’ ” said Mr. Hof, noting there were legitimate questions about the proliferation of weapons.
The difficulty: “trying as best we can to make sure the people we think ought to have arms get them, and try to make sure that the people we think should not have arms don’t get them. This is easier said than done,” Mr. Hof said.
The U.S. has provided non-lethal and humanitarian aid to Syrian rebel forces and civilians.
More than 60,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the war, according to the United Nations.
The conflict has left more than 4 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, including 2 million Syrians who have fled their homes inside the country and created more than 630,000 refugees. The refugees are pouring into Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and Egypt. Most are women and children.