The Syrian civil war is a humanitarian disaster, but that's not enough to justify United States intervention there.
The civil war in Syria has raged over the past two years, leaving nearly 100,000 people dead amid ever-escalating violence while the United States remained on the sidelines.
U.S. policy has been, for the most part, paralyzed, leavened only by the announcement this week about President Barack Obama's decision to send small arms, but nothing more, to assist the rebels fighting to oust Bashar Assad from power.
If there was ever a time when the U.S. could or should have intervened, it appears that time has long since passed. But the situation was chaotic from the beginning and that explains, at least in part, why Obama resisted calls for U.S. intervention. Obama's explanation for his inaction reveals the depth of the problem.
"Really, what we're trying to do is take sides against extremists of all sorts," Obama said.
That's a pretty tough nut to crack, considering that extremists dominate both sides of the bloodletting in Syria.
Fighting on behalf of the Assad regime are the holy warriors from Hezbollah, who are assisted by their religious sponsors in Iran. Also lending a hand to Assad is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is maneuvering to place his country back into a position of influence in the Middle East.
On the other side are the rebels seeking to oust Assad from power, just as the rebels in Libya did with longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi. That movement is increasingly driven by an al-Qaida-allied group called Jabhat al-Nusra.
Obama has said from the beginning that Assad must go. But he did not back up his words with deeds, and Assad remains determined to kill as many people as necessary to save himself.
Further complicating the issue is who would replace Assad. The U.S. helped push Hosni Mubarak from power in Egypt, only to see the Muslim Brotherhood take over. From a humanitarian standpoint, Mubarak's fall was a setback for the Egyptian people. From a strategic standpoint, Mubarak's fall was a setback for the U.S.
That's the way things go in the Middle East, where bad can be replaced by worse.
President Obama said he's hoping for a political, rather than a military, solution to the fight in Syria, one that excludes extremists, chaos and instability. His policy depends on both sides fighting themselves to exhaustion, negotiating a settlement and then sticking with it. As policy objectives goes, it's worthwhile. But it's naively at odds with the pattern and practice of settling disputes in this war-torn region of the world.