“The way these situations get resolved is politically,” Obama said in his interview with Rose. He noted that the opposition is made up of “carpenters and blacksmiths and dentists. These aren’t professional fighters.” The unstated message was: This takes time.

It’s telling that even after last week’s announcement of military aid to the rebels, U.S. officials were still studying the fine print of last June’s Geneva agreement with Russia, China and other leading nations for a Syrian-led transition. This document calls for a “neutral environment in which the transition can take place,” which U.S. officials see as code for the Assad clan’s departure.

The Obama policy on Syria isn’t quite as feckless as it may look. But it has the fundamental flaw of past covert-action programs, which is that the United States is seeking a decisive political change through proxy forces that have limited power and popular support — and could easily be overwhelmed by others who have a stronger ideological or religious motivation. It’s not an accident that the jihadists have been the best fighters among the rebels: They’re the most passionate about their cause.