The civil war in Syria is heading in the wrong direction. In the last year, rebels had won control of big slices of territory, including much of the country's largest city, Aleppo. But those gains prompted a surge of military aid to Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime: urban guerrillas from Lebanon's Hezbollah and Iraq's Shiite Muslim militias, combat advisors from Iran's Revolutionary Guard and antiaircraft missiles from Russia (to prevent "hotheads" from trying to impose anything like a no-fly zone, an official in Moscow said Monday). As a result, the Assad regime has seized at least a temporary advantage.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, among others, thinks it's time for the U.S. to step up its aid to the rebels. "There's a moment to try to tip the scales, and we believe that moment is now," Menendez said last week, after his committee voted 15 to 3 to authorize military aid in addition to the current "nonlethal" supplies.
But President Obama has doggedly resisted any escalation. He even put the brakes on adding body armor and night-vision goggles to the mix of nonlethal aid.
The debate here isn't over whether the United States should intervene in Syria; it's how much, and how. After all, the United States has already imposed sanctions, given nonlethal aid to the rebels (including intelligence), and made efforts to wrangle moderate opposition groups into a functioning coalition.
Nobody is proposing deploying U.S. troops — except, perhaps, if Assad's chemical weapons might fall into the hands of terrorist groups.
But by the same token, almost nobody's proposing doing nothing. The outcome in Syria matters. A victory by Assad would be a major setback for U.S. diplomacy and a major win for Iran. A victory by the most radical faction of the rebels — Al Nusra Front, Syria's Al Qaeda affiliate — would be a disaster.
So why not take the next step, supplying the rebels with the weapons and ammunition they say they still need? I asked several administration officials, and here's what they said.
First, the Obama administration is tired of being asked to take ownership of every international crisis. If we jump into Syria with military aid and a no-fly zone, officials say, then all the burdens of that effort will be ours. Worse, if the rebels are losing, they and the rest of the world will be all too quick to demand that the United States do more. Far better to let others take the lead, especially on high-visibility jobs like supplying weapons. (In this case, the "others" are mainly Qatar and Saudi Arabia, although Britain and France may soon join in.)
Then there's the pathetically fractured state of Syria's opposition. Last weekend in Istanbul, opposition leaders met to try to expand their quasi-parliament. If they could bring more moderates into the fold, elect a president and begin functioning like a government in exile, Western countries could increase all forms of aid more quickly. But the rebel politicos couldn't manage it. The Qatar-backed rebels in control of the assembly, including members of the Muslim Brotherhood, balked at giving dozens of seats to moderates supported by Saudi Arabia and the West. Outcome: an embarrassing stalemate.
In Libya, the United States and its allies used military force to help rebels who were unified and occasionally even organized battle a government that was erratic and incompetent. Syria offers the opposite: disorganized, often incompetent rebels — except, alas, for Al Nusra — fighting a government that's both capable and ruthless.
Of course, there's another big reason the Obama administration is reluctant to get more involved in Syria: It would be costly in terms of both money and political capital. Polls show that most Americans don't want anything to do with the Syrian war. Any new military action, even one without boots on the ground, would detract from the goal Obama set out in his reelection campaign: nation-building at home.
That's why, almost two years after his idealistic declaration that the United States stood on the side of the rebels, Obama's policy is more cautious now.
The aim isn't to help the rebels win soon; that's beyond our capabilities. Instead, it's to keep the war within manageable bounds.
That means helping the opposition get organized and funneling military aid from other donors to the moderate Brig. Gen. Salim Idriss instead of Al Nusra. And it means cajoling Russia to help organize peace talks in Geneva between the government and the rebels, even though nobody really expects talks to succeed when the government and its allies think they're winning.
With luck, officials say, the rebels will slowly grow stronger, the government weaker. But win or lose, it won't be pretty. "It's going to be a long haul," one senior official warned me. A U.S. commitment that began in the romantic dawn of the Arab Spring has turned, instead, into an exercise in painful realism.
Follow Doyle McManus on Twitter @DoyleMcManus