As the war that has degraded and all but partitioned Syria enters its third year, the amorphous coalition known as the Friends of Syria continues to hover just off-stage. The Western democracies, moderate Arab governments and international organizations that constitute the coalition are indeed friends of the opposition to the despotic regime of Bashar Assad—but at arm's length. There is always another meeting around the corner, another set of benchmarks laid out by these friends, who then judge that the opposition has not achieved a sufficient level of pluralism and democratic devotion to merit the coalition's wholehearted support.
The latest meeting comes Thursday in Rome, where Secretary of State John Kerry's get-to-know-you European tour will bring him together with the Friends of Syria—and with representatives of the Syrian rebellion. The Friends of Syria would like to broker peace negotiations, but what the Syrian opposition wants and needs is not negotiations: The rebels want to overthrow the murderous Assad regime. Walid Bunni, a spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition, told Al Arabiya television Monday that opposition leaders would attend the Rome meeting following assurances that the U.S. and the U.K. would increase direct aid to the rebels. The group would go to Rome, he said, and "see if the promises are different this time."
Mr. Kerry, for his part, promises a new beginning: "We are determined that the Syrian opposition is not going to be dangling in the wind wondering where the support is or if it's coming," he said Monday. "We are determined to change the calculation on the ground for President Assad."
Yet the European arms embargo remains in place and official U.S. policy remains "nonlethal" aid only. If Mr. Kerry merely picks up where his predecessor had left off, there is no salvation in sight for the Syrian people. For the length of two brutal years, while tens of thousands died, Hillary Clinton engaged in "lead from behind" diplomacy and ran out the clock on the Syrian rebellion.
To Mrs. Clinton's credit, news recently came to light that she and the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of the Central Intelligence Agency had argued in favor of arming the Syrian opposition last year but were overruled by a president who wanted no new burdens in an Arab theater of war. One doesn't know what to make of the revelation, or its seriousness. No one resigned on principle.
For Mr. Kerry, there is yet another burden—his own role in the disastrous U.S. policy that the Obama administration pursued in Damascus when it came into office. Obama advisers were convinced that the Bush policy had needlessly antagonized the Damascus regime, and that the Americans could "flip" the regime away from Tehran. To that end, the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon was sacrificed at the altar of engaging the Syrian ruler.
The WikiLeaks cables from Damascus of 2009 and 2010 bear testimony to the American solicitude shown Bashar Assad. He was told that President Bush's "diplomacy of freedom" was a thing of the past. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mr. Kerry took it upon himself to serve as an interlocutor with the Syrian dictator. He was part of the chorus that saw hope in reasoning with the son of Hafez Assad, the military man and Baathist who seized control of Syria in 1970. In Bashar, and his stylish British-born wife, they saw a modern couple bent on opening up a drab and sterile dictatorship.
In his defense, Mr. Kerry would maintain that he was only testing the intentions of Damascus, that he had trod a path pursued by such seasoned diplomats as Henry Kissinger and James Baker: The isolation of Damascus had failed as a policy, and he had given "engagement" a try.
This is in the past, but not entirely. Mr. Kerry wants to change Assad's calculus, but the despot knows his mind and the rules of the terrible sectarian war he ignited. It would take a major break with the passivity of the past two years to upend the regime. The stalemate on the ground has resulted in a de facto partition: Damascus is contested, the regime holds sway on the coast and the Alawite Mountains, while the rebellion has the upper hand in the north and in the eastern part of the country. The very nationhood of Syria is coming apart.
If Mr. Kerry wants to break the stalemate, he must will the means. The promise to provide "nonlethal" aid directly to the opposition that he is said to have taken to Rome is a step in the right direction. Past humanitarian assistance from the U.S. was channeled through the regime or neighboring countries. Now the push will be to empower the opposition with financial support and equipment.
But there is no substitute for military aid that neutralizes the Assad regime's deadly firepower. We must be done with the alibi that we can't arm and see this rebellion to victory because the jihadists now have the upper hand in the ranks of the rebels.
The idea that a nation willing to pay such a terrible price for its freedom, to brave fighter jets and Scud missiles, is eager to slip under the yoke of fighters from Libya and Chechnya is manifestly false. Yes, the Nusra Front, a band of non-Syrian jihadists that the U.S. considers a terrorist organization, brought guns and money into the fight. But the opening for the Nusra Front was born of the abdication of those who had it within their means to tip the scales in favor of the rebellion.
American passivity proved contagious. In the face of that passivity, other powers held back. A ramshackle Syrian army was depicted as a mighty force, so much so that the vastly superior forces of the Turkish state overlooked countless Syrian provocations, and the Syria-Turkey border had to be defended by Patriot missiles provided by NATO.
That passivity was of no small consequence to the Sunni Arab states as well. The fight for Damascus, and the specter of an Iranian victory as it backs Assad in that big Sunni-Shiite struggle, terrifies the moderate Arab regimes. But they, too, have not given this fight their all. Largely because they haven't had the U.S. to lead them.
This is "the East," with a scent for power and weakness, with a feel for the intentions and the staying power of strangers. Syria is the place where the will of Iran could be broken.
Daily, it seems, we warn Iran of the consequences of its defiance and of its pursuit of nuclear weapons. But could it be that the Iranian theocrats pay U.S. power little heed because they see American passivity not so far from them?
Mr. Ajami is a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution and the author most recently of "The Syrian Rebellion" (Hoover Press, 2012).