- - Thursday, September 18, 2014

While watching Congress debate whether or not we should arm the Syrian rebels, I found myself humming the 1960s Shirelles song, “Will you still love me tomorrow?”

Like the lonely wallflower desperate for a dance, Syrian rebels are desperate for leadership. But, before the handsome United States saunters over, hand extended with love in our eyes, there needs to be a longterm commitment if we’re going to get hot and heavy. If the rebels aren’t asking if we’ll still arm them tomorrow, then we should be. By arming the Syria rebels, we’re picking a fight with Russia that we can’t afford to lose.

Chemical weapons, al Qaeda, the rise of the Islamic State — all are compelling interests that demand U.S. involvement in Syria. Yet in the midst of all of this, there’s a phantom conflict that cannot be overlooked: United States vs. Russia. While right now it’s just lurking in the shadows, this conflict has the greatest stakes. And it’s the reason why the Syrian rebels should be wary about halfhearted U.S. military involvement. They’re not ready to take on Russia by themselves, directly or veiled by Assad.

Last September, when 11 powerful countries issued a statement calling for a “strong international response” to the atrocities committed by the Assad regime, we had a window to make an impact. Then President Vladimir Putin pledged aid to Bashar al-Assad if the U.S. took military action. Further, Mr. Putin admitted that Russia was already arming the al-Assad regime and would add missile defense to the inventory if necessary. So we put our tail between our legs and cowered to his threat. Since then, the size, scope, and strength of the violent forces have only increased, pushing stability in that region further out of reach.

Now, the threat it poses to our national security can’t be ignored. Public opinion demanded a response from President Obama, so he gave one. Yet, in his speech on the eve of 9/11, he pretty much declared to the world that he was about to have a one night stand with the Syrian rebels. And the world pretty much reacted in dismay. Airstrikes, and airstrikes alone, would be our only commitment. After that, we’re outta there. We’ll leave the heavy lifting up to the rebels.

Yet, this is the same old fight with Russia, just a different field. Russia is arming the al-Assad regime. We’ll be arming its opposition. There is no doubt that in Mr. Putin’s mind this will be a “mine is bigger than yours” display. Can’t you just picture Mr. Putin kissing his biceps in front of the mirror?

If we’re not committed to the long haul — ground troops if needed and rebuilding after the fact — than arming the opposition could backfire on us the way it did with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

In the early 1980s, we armed the nascent Taliban to fight the Soviet forces in Afghanistan. After our objectives were met, our support ended. Many military analysts have said that our abrupt abandonment, and failure to acknowledge the new Afghan government, led to their hostility toward the United States; the jilted-lover effect on foreign policy. Whether this theory is legitimate or not, the jilted lover effect is something to consider as we move forward with the Syrian opposition. How committed are we to their long-term stability?

Unless Mr. Putin rescinded his pledge to Assad in a statement that didn’t get any media coverage at all, containing Russia, this unseen enemy, must be a key objective in our military strategy for Syria.

The international community is watching, weighing their decision to jump on board. Right now we’re all over the map. Even Congressional supporters are contradicting themselves by calling this both the first step and the only step. So which is it? The first step or the only step we’ll take? “Ready, shoot then aim” is not a smart way to approach this. We need to be all-in or not in at all.

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