US President Barack Obama has succumbed to pressure to get his country directly involved in Syria's civil war. He has decided to arm the rebels, using as justification a belief that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad's government has deployed chemical weapons against the fighters trying to overthrow the regime. The US is also considering imposing a no-fly zone, which, if approved, would be its first direct military intervention in the conflict. A worrying path has been embarked upon that offers no solution to a dispute that Syrians, not outsiders, should decide.
Obama claims that the use of chemical weapons has crossed a "red line" from which there could only come American action. But he has not made clear why such intervention is necessary: is it to save lives or topple Assad's regime? Or perhaps the decision is to make Syria a front in the dispute with arch-enemy Iran, which supports Hezbollah, the Lebanese political group and militia behind Assad's recent battlefield gains. If it is about chemical weapons, the task is for UN inspectors. But the US cannot afford and its citizens do not want a military response; another Iraq or Afghanistan is the last thing they, the Middle East and the world needs.
American involvement in the conflict offers no realistic prospect of ending it. Arming the rebels could tilt the battlefield, but it will also lead to greater support for Assad's forces from his allies, Russia chief among them. Although no-fly zones are likely to limit Syrian air force assaults on opposition positions, alliances mean the regime has numerous other resources at its disposal. There is also every possibility of the conflict being further regionalised through greater refugee and weapons flows, deeper ethnic and religious divisions and involvement of extremist groups like al-Qaeda.
Syrians have to decide their fate. Foreign help has to be limited to easing the humanitarian catastrophe and pushing for dialogue. Obama's decision to up the ante does not hasten an end to the conflict; it only increases the misery for Syrians.