EDITORIAL: Slippery slope of Syria

As the Obama administration slides further down the slippery slope into Syria's civil war by sending arms to the rebels, ask yourself these basic questions:

What is our national interest? Who among the rebels is a reliable ally to be trusted with U.S. weapons? What qualifies as success? What is our exit strategy?

If you don't have a clue, join the club. It's not your fault; it's because President Barack Obama hasn't clearly explained how Syria follows the core principles of any U.S. intervention. He needs to do so, or reconsider getting further mired in Syria's civil war.

Obama's reticence reflects his ambivalence for providing small arms and ammunition to the rebels.

More than two years into this war, the justification was that Obama had decided the Syrian regime had crossed a "red line" by killing at least 100 to 150 people with chemical weapons. But the timing had at least as much to do with the growing drumbeat for military action from inside and outside government.

Many hawks -- notably Sen. John McCain, who made an ill-advised visit to the rebels in late May -- aren't satisfied with just arming them; they're calling for U.S.-led airstrikes and a no-fly zone to cripple Syria's air force. So far, the White House is balking at that kind of escalation; it is categorically ruling out putting troops on the ground.

No doubt, Bashar Assad is a brutal despot who has shown not a hint of remorse for slaughtering civilians. The loss of an estimated 93,000 lives so far is an unconscionable tragedy; the estimated 1 million refugees is a humanitarian disaster.

But is there any reason to believe that arming the rebels -- who include al-Qaida supporters, radical Islamists and others not friendly to the United States -- will significantly improve the situation? What other steps might it take to end the fighting and force Assad to the negotiating table? And even if Assad were to depart, would any rebel group have enough legitimacy to actually govern?

Some lessons ought to be clear: It's impossible to predict how these interventions will work out. Any accomplishments could blow away like sand. U.S. intervention can play into the hands of al-Qaida.

With all those risks, the president must make a case to the American people that deeper involvement in this civil war is in our interests. If he can't, he needs to stand up to McCain and others pounding the drumbeat for war.