Assad has no reason to fear escalating against the rebels because the actor most capable of ending the regime’s 40-year reign of terror won’t lift a finger. Sure, the United States could destroy the Syrian Air Force, as Obama’s chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, explained in a letter to congressman Eliot Engel. “The use of U.S. military force can change the balance of power,” wrote Dempsey, “but it cannot resolve the underlying and historic ethnic, religious and tribal issues that are fueling this conflict.” So, according to the Obama-Dempsey doctrine, if all the “historic ethnic, religious and tribal issues” that are fueling a conflict can’t be resolved, there’s no point in doing anything. The Obama-Dempsey doctrine would have meant doing nothing in the 1990s in the Balkans. It would have meant—it did mean—doing nothing in the 1930s. It will always be an excuse for doing nothing.

The odd thing is, in saying we shouldn’t do anything, Dempsey would seem to be contradicting Obama’s policy. After all, to enforce his red line over the use of chemical weapons, Obama decided two months ago to send arms to the Syrian rebels. At least that’s what administration officials led everyone to believe back in June, with their many leaks to that effect. Sure, when he rolled out the new policy in a conference call with reporters, Obama aide Ben Rhodes didn’t precisely say the administration was sending arms. In fact when reporters pressed him repeatedly for details, he avoided specifics. He would not give an “inventory” of the items destined for the rebels, Rhodes said. But he sure left the impression that the White House was now sending arms. Same with the president himself when he went on the Charlie Rose show and discussed his new Syria policy—no specifics, Charlie, but, well, you know.