Since the outbreak of the Syrian war in March 2011, the Obama administration has wished it would just go away. It took the US president five months to call on Bashar al-Assad to get out of the way of reform, as if Syrians were revolting against 40 years of not-so-transparent government, rather than violent oppression. And that’s not the worst part. Obama's call to Assad came after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, like her successor John Kerry, had “renewed” her faith in the Syrian dictator's ability, and willingness, to reform.
That would have meant something had the administration followed up its call to Assad to embrace reform with further action. But it has not. Whenever asked about Syria, US officials dance around questions and offer lame excuses.
To look smart, however, the administration has projected an image of taking its time before putting its F-16s up in the air. "I have to weigh" the many factors, Obama told The New Republic, while Kerry talked about a policy review, due in the spring, that should offer Washington a course of action on Syria.
To employ Vice President Joe Biden's favorite word, Obama's Syria policy is pure "malarkey."
When US officials are done "weighing" and "assessing," they might realize that "dialogue" and "political transition" will never fly. Russia used these terms to cover for Assad's crimes. Assad reluctantly endorsed them under pressure from Moscow, and Washington later made them international policy to hide Obama's unwillingness to go beyond diplomatic chatter.
So far, Assad believes his mechanized elite forces can fight for another decade, during which world mood might change, giving him a chance to come back in from the cold. This is the Assad regime template: run down the clock until circumstances change, then make a comeback.
By the same token, rebels believe time is on their side. They think that with strained resources and eroded forces, Assad is slowly weakening. This is partially true, given that regime forces have failed to mount any significant counteroffensive to retrieve lost land after having lost an airport here and a power plant there.
Kerry knows this and said it in his confirmation hearing. None of the Syrian parties will stop fighting because they all think they can win. So it is a stalemate, with carnage and daily loss of human life and massive displacement.
But what if the deadlock is broken?
What if Assad emerges victorious, even if limping? Unlike previous times, it will be hard for Assad to regain his prized membership in the Arab League and world organizations. He will be presiding over a war-ravaged Syria with failing infrastructure and without resources to reconstruct or reconcile.
Assad will become a full pariah. He will be completely downgraded from an Iranian ally to a subordinate, thus boosting Tehran's power from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean. And having defeated its Arab rivals for the second time in a decade in Syria after Iraq, Iran's stature will grow substantially, much to the detriment of America's Middle Eastern allies.
And what happens if Assad loses? The strongest of the rebels, so far the radical Islamists (as the more secular ones have been starved of arms and money) will rule Damascus. Syria will become another failed state and will harbor terrorists.
The Obama administration has an app for that: drones. The more terrorists multiply, the more pilots with joysticks the US military will hire to hunt them down on their rooftops, in their cars or even in their beds with their wives.
So, from the administration's point of view, a bloody deadlock, an Assad victory with some retreat for America's allies or a rebel victory with a consequent failed Syrian state can all be tolerated.
But are drones enough to keep America safe? Or are they like cutting Hydra heads, the more you slash the more numerous they grow? And if the number of terrorists keeps growing, what if one of them finds his way to the United States?
What might be better for America than sitting out the Syrian war and later dealing with its consequences is if the US tries to shape the outcome in its favor.
Washington likes to think that its tools are humanitarian aid, diplomacy, and intelligence. While impressive, none of these are effective enough to influence Syrian events.
The only effective American tool would be pounding Assad from the air to weaken him significantly and give rebels a chance to replace him, just like in Libya. If – like in Libya – a mess follows, it will be measured against the current mess, and no one will blame America for it.
America may also want someone to foot the bill for all the tomahawks and F-16 sorties: Enter the Friends of Syria, who have been generous enough with the embattled refugees.
Finally, for an air intervention to be worthwhile, serious Syrian friends of the United States should step up, ask for the US to lend a hand in toppling Assad, publically express gratitude post-Assad, then work on developing a friendship between Washington and the future Syrian government.
If American air intervention can buy Syrian friendship, can be paid for by other countries, can move Syria from its current mess to an improved mess, can put the country on the track of a long journey toward democracy, and can take out Iran ally and regional trouble-maker Bashar al-Assad, then intervention will make sense for Washington. Just ask James Baker how he did it in 1991.
If the answers to any of these questions is no, then America can keep hunkering down, consider expanding its drone attack map to include Syria, and hope that by sitting on the fence, opponents will forget America exists on the world stage and thus spare it their terrorist attacks. But for such a policy, America will need many more, and smarter, excuses.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington Bureau Chief of Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai. He tweets at @hahussain