Before the election, several domestic factors and strategic concerns constrained President Obamas action on the Syria crisis. Fears that missteps (really, any steps) would become political fodder for Republicans and the feelings of war-weary voters conspired against a more forceful US strategy for Syria.
Now that Mr. Obama has won reelection, his administration will have fewer worries about the domestic political consequences of foreign policy decisions in his second term. But the strategic concerns about foreign intervention in Syria remain. Obama is not likely to suddenly overhaul his Syria policy, but he should.
Obamas policy of staying the course or kicking the can down the road on Syria should ultimately be weighed against worsening strategic realities in the country and the region. Only a careful military program to help the rebels, including arming and training them, can stem the growing costs of US inaction.
The Obama administrations cautious and pragmatic foreign policy, anchored in the presidents personality and governing style, is likely to continue, especially in Washingtons approach to Syria. Obama was and still is genuinely concerned that, in an already combustible Middle East, a US military operation against Syria, no matter how surgical, would spiral out of control and cause a widespread conflagration that would involve Israel, Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas.
US military involvement might start as a limited campaign (a no- fly zone, air strikes, or other direct military tactics short of boots on the ground) meant to stop the bloodshed, remove Bashar al- Assad, and secure a large chemical weapons arsenal. But it could end up with severe unintended consequences: a regional war, more bloodshed, a power vacuum that could favor jihadist elements, and weapons of mass destruction that end up in terrorist hands.
Obama also holds concerns that direct military engagement in Syria might upset his carefully crafted strategy on Iran, which he thinks is working. Obama strongly believes that his administration has achieved notable successes on the Iranian nuclear front an effective sanctions regime that is hurting Irans economy and an international coalition that seems equally committed to the goal of convincing Iran to scale down its nuclear aspirations.
Neither of these developments is guaranteed to change the nuclear calculus of the Iranian leadership, but Obama likely judges that too much effort has been put into the Iranian issue over the past four years to see it ruined now by fishing in Syrian troubled waters. Syria is Irans only ally in the region, and US military action against the Assad regime is likely to trigger overt intervention by Iran, which could escalate into a US-Iran military conflict. Obama certainly does not want to be forced to go to war against Iran because of Syria.
While the situation in Syria is tragic and keeps worsening by the day, Obama seems to have made it clear that his top Middle East priority is Iran, not Syria. …