President Barack Obama has insisted since the early days of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad's government that the United States not take a military role in the conflict. He has held to that policy, limiting the U.S. role in the increasingly bloody conflict to providing humanitarian relief and communications equipment to the rebels. Monday, though, he said the United States would not stand idly by if Syria deployed chemical or biological weapons in the civil war. Doing so, he said, would be a "red line" that if crossed could prompt U.S. military intervention.
Obama's message is aptly timed. The war in Syria, which has lasted for at least 18 months and claimed, reputable sources report, about 20,000 lives, seems to be entering a definitive phase. The rebels opposed to Assad's regime are gaining territory and support, and it seems increasingly likely that their cause ultimately will succeed.
Growing rebel successes, though, could prompt the Syrian government to take increasingly desperate steps -- perhaps including the use of biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction -- to remain in power. That possibility and the fact that Syria has acknowledged publicly in recent weeks that it possesses enormous stockpiles of chemical and biological weaponry (though it has made no direct threat to use them) no doubt prompted the president's pointed message.
The president reiterated that the "red line' applies to Syria, to the rebels fighting Assad and to allies of either side. He added that he has undertaken no military action regarding the situation in Syria yet, but that officials are watching events "very carefully" and have a variety of contingency plans in place to safeguard the security of the United States and its allies. That's an appropriately measured response to a dire situation.
Some, including likely GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, advocate a far more active U.S. role in Syria, including shipping arms to the rebels. That would be a mistake at this juncture. There's no need to funnel weapons to disparate groups who are united in the quest for a free Syria but whose alliances and post-civil war plans for governance are mostly unknown. That's a dangerous path to follow.
It's better for the Untied States to follow the current course of promoting regime change without heavy-handed military intervention. The president is correct -- for the moment -- to warn, to watch and to wait when it comes to Syria. The United States does not need to become involved in another internecine war far from home.