Sen. John McCain, who for some time has urged President Barack Obama to provide Syrian rebels with anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles in addition to humanitarian aid, spent a few high-profile hours with rebel leaders on Monday inside Syria.
Though the Obama administration knew in advance and the State Department, along with Syrian rebels, provided security, the senator’s visit was a surprise to many Americans who understandably wonder whether this signals an escalation of U.S. involvement in Syria’s civil war.
After all, activity seems to have picked up on multiple fronts. Iran, a close ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad and the chief supporter of Hezbollah, condemned Sen. McCain’s visit. For good measure, Hezbollah, which in the last two weeks has lost 80 fighters in Syria, announced it will more actively assist the Assad regime.
Much of the weaponry President Assad’s army and allies are being supplied by Russia, which has long armed Syria but which earlier this month was preparing to work with the United States on talks to de-escalate the conflict. That seems a fantastic notion now, given that Russia recently promised to sell Syria air-defense missiles with a range of 125 miles.
Not surprisingly, news of that transaction has drawn a public threat from Israel to launch strikes on shipments of the missiles if Russia does indeed provide them. Israel, which doesn’t issue many public threats, also doesn’t bluff often. It has already launched air strikes on arms shipments inside Syria that were to be delivered to Hezbollah.
The European Union also made a pivotal move this week. While continuing its sanctions on the Assad regime, the EU decided not to renew its prohibition on arms shipments to the rebels.
It fell short of initiating arms shipments, which would more directly involve the 27-member organization, and instead said not renewing its ban gives the EU “flexibility” in the event the situation deteriorates further.
Which brings us back to the United States. President Obama, who is damned if he provides arms to the rebels and damned if he doesn’t, has squandered U.S. influence in the Syrian conflict by issuing hollow threats and standing by while tens of thousands of innocent Syrians have been killed. His inaction at evidence that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons has left Americans and the world wondering where President Obama’s “red line” for President Assad is — if there is one.
That’s worth knowing given the growing dangers of a wider war that come with the increasing involvement of so many other parties.