Four Ways Obama’s Syria Gambit Could End

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Evan Vucci / AP

President Barack Obama gestures during a speech at the Belfast Waterfront on June 17, 2013, in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

The White House last week said the U.S. will start arming certain Syrian opposition groups with light weapons, moving to intervene in that country’s bloody civil war. The question now is how deeply America will become involved in the fighting.

The decision to supply arms is a cautious half-step for President Barack Obama, who previously concentrated on ending the two wars begun by George W. Bush. Obama has only agreed to military entanglements when world opinion clearly leaned in favor of it. When he has done so–in Libya and Central Africa, for example–he’s largely succeeded in keeping the U.S. from being drawn further into the bloodshed.

But Syria is by far the largest war in which Obama has picked sides, and with U.S. stakes already high in the region, intervention carries far more risks than rewards.

(MORE: Is Obama Prolonging the War In Syria?)

The recent history of U.S. intervention in messy civil wars is mixed, and suggests there are four ways Obama’s risky Syria gambit could end.

1. Mission creep to a bad outcome.

When President George H. W. Bush deployed U.S. forces to Somalia in late 1992, it was for similarly humanitarian reasons as the Obama administration now cites for stepping up its involvement in Syria. On taking office less than two months later, Bill Clinton found himself waging a war he had not expected. The escalating U.S. involvement introduced the term “mission creep” to the American vocabulary as the initial humanitarian mission turned into a hunt for the conflict’s worst players.

After American troops were killed and dragged through the streets of Mogadishu on one such expedition, Clinton was suddenly facing a potential quagmire: he could drastically escalate, but with little guarantee of lasting victory, or he could cut and run. He chose the latter.

The memory of Mogadishu is still fresh for many who advocate humanitarian intervention, including Obama, which is why he remains leery of being drawn deeply into the Syrian war. “We don’t at this point believe that the U.S. has a national interest in pursuing a very intense, open-ended military engagement through a no-fly zone in Syria at this juncture,” said Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes in announcing the arming of Syrian rebels.

Obama already faces calls from members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to do more. None envision troops on the ground, but many advocate a no fly zone. “Our goal should be in the short term is to balance the military power and providing small arms won’t do it,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press. “So we need to create a no-fly zone to neutralize the [Syrian president Bashar] Assad’s air power.”

(MORE: The Syrian War: Israel and U.S. Coordinating How to Target Assad’s Arsenal)

2. Mission creep to an acceptable outcome.

After Mogadishu, Clinton resisted calls to intervene in the wars in the Balkans. He also faced strong resistance from Russia, which viewed the region as its traditional area of influence. Clinton pushed a series of U.N. missions led by a mix of European and Asian troops that failed to deliver peace or protect civilians. Over the following three years, nearly 100,000 people died as the U.N. missions expanded. Ultimately, the Clinton administration led a NATO mission to end the fighting.

The United Nations estimates that 93,000 have perished in Syria in the last two years of fighting. NATO needed 80,000 troops to secure Bosnia, and the Pentagon estimates it would take 80,000 troops to secure Assad’s stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. Russia has strongly condemned European and U.S. involvement. Former Rep. Jane Harman, a California Democrat who now heads the Woodrow Wilson Center, suggested on Fox News Sunday that the lessons from Bosnia may apply in Syria. “I have some reservations about the air campaign [proposed by Graham and others] because of the chemical weapons. But we have to show the Russians that we are tough. And we haven’t shown that yet.”

3. Limited U.S. military aid tips the balance in favor of the rebels, Al Qaeda-allied groups emerge more powerful than before.

Part of the conundrum for Obama as he gets the U.S. involved in Syria is that some of the rebels the U.S. is backing are allied with groups tied to Al Qaeda. So even if U.S. aid helps topple Assad, the U.S. could face a worse outcome: radical jihadists empowered and emboldened in the region. That is the kind of mixed blessing the U.S. got backing the Taliban against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It’s a primary reason Obama is limiting the kind of military aid he is sending to the rebels.

4. America’s involvement remains very limited but helps tip the balance in favor of the rebels, but not those allied with al Qaeda.

There are no real models for that kind of success in recent American history. The closest is Obama’s intervention in Libya, his first as commander-in-chief. When Muammar Gaddhafi threatened widespread attacks against his own people a U.N. sanctioned coalition of countries, including the U.S. stepped in to help insurgents oust Gaddafi. The Libyan opposition was better organized and more cohesive than their Syrian counterparts. Even so, jihadists emerged in the east to launch the raid in Benghazi that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

Even if a good outcome were likely in Syria, there are few upsides at home. Polls show there is little support for the U.S. sending arms to the Syrian opposition, let alone engaging in another Middle Eastern war. And Obama’s opponents are already critical. “It’s not clear to me what the mission is here,” former Vice President Dick Cheney said on “Fox News Sunday.” “Is it strictly humanitarian? Is it geostrategic? Does the United States have a vested interest in the outcome?”

The President is weighing all his options, White House Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “We have to be very discerning about what’s in our interest and what outcome is best for us, and the prices that we’re willing to pay to get to that place,” McDonough said. “We’ve rushed to war in this region in the past. We’re not going to do it here.”

MORE: Arming Syria’s Rebellion: How Libyan Weapons and Know-How Reach Anti-Assad Fighters