What Syria portends

The timing of the Syrian Revolution could not have been better for Bashar al-Assad. During the Bush administration, he softened his approach with the United States for fear of facing the same fate as Saddam Hussein. Times have changed. Although Assad may lose sleep over the opposition groups that continue to wrest large chunks of Syria from his control, he can rest easy knowing that the U.S. is distracted. In the past, he would have worried about the U.S. taking decisive action. Now, however, he can use the time given him by U.S. failure to engage in the crisis to establish a firm grasp of the Syrian coast or to ensure that his loyalists are well-placed throughout the country. The U.S. is now working with its NATO allies to position Patriot missiles along the Syrian border. But this will merely prevent the conflict from spreading to Turkey, and will do little to effect change within Syria’s borders. In a different era, Assad might have been gone by now. But now, he has time and room to maneuver. For the United States, it is a case of less money, more problems.

There are many reasons for the tepid U.S. reaction to the crisis in Syria. War weariness and foreign involvement complicate the situation, and there is no obvious militant group or heroic figure behind which to throw our support. Even if there were, though, it is not clear that the U.S. would be in a position to support them. As evidenced by a letter sent from Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to Senate and House leadership on Wednesday, sections of the NDAA would “impede DoD’s ability to effectively plan for options related to Syria.” The nature of the cuts proposed by the administration, however, might have a similar impact, and would reduce the options available to the U.S. to support the ouster of Assad.

The hands of the United States are somewhat tied until a clear picture emerges of what the defense resources base will look like after the budget negotiations. Meanwhile, the world keeps turning. Countries whose budgets are less pressed than that of the United States have thrown their hats into the ring: Saudi Arabia and Qatar are funding opposition groups that they hope will leave Syria in the hands of the Sunnis. Make no mistake: this is not a hastily arranged exercise in offshore balancing. In the absence of U.S. leadership, the extremist group Jabhat al-Nusra has gained traction in the field and support from the Syrian Opposition Coalition. We’ve seen the consequences of allowing Sunni Gulf States to fund Islamists, and yet our hand-wringing and negligence has provided a window of opportunity for extremist groups.

A truncated defense budget would even further complicate the decision-making process. A full-scale invasion would likely become as untenable fiscally as it is politically. Surgical strikes against Assad strongholds or the regime’s chemical weapons-related facilities might be ruled out as too risky and expensive due to Syria’s relatively sophisticated air defenses. Finding money to fund appropriate rebel groups would also become more difficult. In light of the budget crisis, our options have become more limited.