Syrian mess hard to define

The Arab Spring is really an Arab Nightmare, most recently in Syria.

President Barack Obama may have talked himself in a rhetorical corner, but his reluctance to involve the United States in the ongoing civil war in Syria is well advised.

The problem in taking sides in Syria, as it was in Egypt and Libya and other countries torn by civil strife in the region, is telling the good guys from the bad. The U.S. played a role in forcing former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down, averting what would surely have been a bloodbath between pro- and anti-Mubarak forces. Now, unfortunately, the Egyptian government is firmly under the control of the Muslim Brotherhood, an anti-democratic, anti-Israel and anti-U.S. group that will be loath to surrender power without a struggle.

Now it's the brutal regime of Bashar Assad that's under attack in Syria. While it's pretty clear that Assad, like his father before him, is a ruthless oppressor of his own people, it's not clear that those trying to oust him from power are much better. Analysts say that there are pro-democratic forces among the rebels, but they're working with the forces of theocracy against Assad.

Who will ultimately survive this life-and-death struggle and how they will rule remains up in the air. That means that any effort by the Obama administration to arm pro-democracy forces could end up with those who abhor that ideal.

Obama's appearance problem is that he's stated that any use of chemical weapons by Assad is a "red line" that Assad cannot cross, that it would prompt U.S. intervention. Unfortunately, it's pretty clear that Assad, either not intimidated by Obama or not convinced that he's serious, is using chemical weapons.

Obama's response so far has been to do nothing except play rhetorical games suggesting that Assad has not really done what Obama has said he cannot do. That kind of uncertain message won't impress our enemies. But, at this point at least, it's less destructive than stepping into a conflict we can't control on the side of forces we can't trust.

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