Bashar al-Assad's murder machine has claimed well over 7,000 victims by now. Many more have become refugees, within and beyond Syria. The intelligence services continue to arrest, interrogate, and torture the regime's opponents, real or imagined, many of whom are among the "disappeared." The Syrian army is again shelling Homs, the uprising's epicenter. Assad is certainly helped by having more firepower than his ill-equipped, dispersed opponents and the backing of Iran, Russia, and China, but it's facile to believe that his regime is isolated within Syria. It retains support, not just from the Alawites minority that dominates it, but also among Christians and even middle class Sunnis (the largest segment of the population) in the two biggest cities, Damascus and Aleppo. While there have been desertions from the army, there is no sign that is about to abandon the regime.
Those watching this relentless cruelty from the outside -- above all exiled or expatriate Syrians -- are beset by despair and frustration. All that has been tried to date has failed. Sanctions have hit the economy hard, but it's unclear who's being hurt more: the person on the street or the people in power. The Arab League's observer mission withdrew after a regime that has no interest in outsiders witnessing and then publicizing its savagery curbed the group's freedom of movement. The League's offers to mediate were likewise spurned. The February 4 Security Council resolution proposed a Syrian-led transition to democracy brokered by the League. An anodyne document, it sought to accommodate the reservations of Russia and China, but they vetoed it, prompting Assad to intensify the killing. The non-binding General Assembly resolution of February 16 that upbraided the Syrian authorities left Bashar unmoved, no matter that an overwhelming majority of countries approved it. For the Syrian president world opinion is a vaporous thing.
The international community's failures have dispirited many groups in the United States (to say nothing of the Syrian opposition): human rights advocates; adherents of the "Responsibility to Protect" (R2P) doctrine; conservatives, neo and regular; and liberal internationalists. The continuing violence has prompted some prominent conservatives and liberals to recommend arming those fighting Assad's forces. Now Senator John McCain, the congressional heavyweight on national security matters, has joined them. The momentum is likely to grow.
But what's being proposed deserves scrutiny because it is a big step that could create far-reaching consequences. Hence these six questions:
First, who, precisely, will be the recipients of the arms, and how much is known about their plans for a post-Assad Syria? The opposition -- both the Syrian National Council based in Turkey and resistance leaders inside Syria -- wants the killing stopped and Assad and company banished. Beyond that, however, there are political divisions and no central authority or substantive common program. The assurance that all this will emerge in time is an appeal to faith.
Second, will there be a military response if the Syrian regime uses force to block the flow of arms (which must come through Turkey given the risks involved using the Syrian ports of Latakia and Tartus), and if so by whom and how?
Third, if the political opposition and the Free Syrian Army, a mix of homegrown militias and army defectors, cannot muster the organizational and military capacity required to damage the Syrian army enough to convince Assad that he must end his onslaught and pursue negotiations or seek exile, will the next move be to dispatch trainers -- potential hostages -- and to send more if the initial installment proves insufficient?
Fourth, if arms and trainers don't suffice, will troops follow, to create safe zones or even to fight, and if so whose? This is scarcely a trivial matter: empowering the opposition to fight harder for a time and backing away if it cannot sustain the tempo is indefensible, pragmatically and ethically. So once you're in, be prepared to be in for the long haul.
Fifth, the war has already been internationalized, with money, weapons, and fighters arriving from Iran and the Arab world, so if the United States arms the opposition and Assad's regime's benefactors (Russia and Iran possibly) respond in kind or increase their assistance, will Washington wage a competition, even though that could prolong the war?
Sixth, if a humanitarian intervention that begins with arms supplies transmutes into a proxy war and sows instability in neighboring countries, what will the adverse consequences be, and what plans exist to manage them?
Some of these questions may not admit of precise answers. Still, in a crisis like this, it's foolish to take a significant initial step without contemplating what the next ones will be, especially if the first move produces unexpected and undesired results. After the campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya (now approaching anarchy), there's no excuse for not thinking hard about unforeseen developments and about whether there exists the requisite will to deal with them if they materialize. This much we know -- or should.