As pressure builds for a military option in Syria, can the White House afford to keep quiet?
- By Gayle Tzemach LemmonGayle Tzemach Lemmon is fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.
For all the recent discussion in Washington about how to proceed in Syria, the sense remains that the United States is not yet ready for an entirely new, more aggressive direction on the two-year-old conflict that has claimed at least 70,000 lives and created at least 1.4 million refugees. But with Turkey now asserting that Syria has used chemical weapons — adding weight to the claims from Britain, France, Qatar, and the United States — and with the conflict growing bloodier and more complicated each day, the Obama administration faces greater pressure to deepen its involvement on the political, humanitarian, and military fronts.
The past week has seen stirrings of diplomatic movement on Syria: Secretary of State John Kerry headed to Russia to meet with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and ended up leaving with a plan to "seek to convene an international conference." Meanwhile, in Washington a bipartisan duo of foreign policy heavyweights, Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, took to the Senate floor to push President Barack Obama to lead a military campaign against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who favors arming Syrian rebels, said he sees a "sea change" now turning in favor of the Syrian opposition.
Yet when it comes to turning the rhetoric into reality, few in Washington close to the Syrian conflict expect to see any quick action. Though calls to take more agressive action are getting louder and more frequent, Washington’s "go-slow caucus" still exercises the power behind the scenes, emphasizing the narrative of a gradual, diplomatic approach — one echoed in the White House. In conversations with State Department officials and three senior former statesmen and advisors, a picture emerges that when it comes to intervention into a murky and dangerous conflict in Syria, the consensus in the Obama administration appears to be that caution is the better part of valor.
Within the State Department, officials say that "whatever is going to be done is on a slow track" and that they have not yet felt a momentum shift in the direction of greater action. More help for refugees and additional political and economic support for bordering countries may come; this week, the United States announced $100 million more for humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees, with nearly half that amount going to Jordan but that remains far short of the more muscular military interventions some have been seeking.
For its part, the White House has supported diplomatic overtures, including Kerry’s visit to Russia, and asserted once more that "Syria’s future cannot include Bashar al-Assad." But at 1600 Pennsylvania, the sense among several officials I spoke to at the State Department is that "this is not a war they want to be part of." Notes one State official, "if they are going to do something they are going to do it on their own time, in their own way, and they are not going to stumble into this."
The White House disputes the idea that it has not been leading on Syria.
"We are working urgently to hasten a transition from Bashar al-Assad to a democratic Syria that is inclusive of all Syrians," says National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden. "Our nonlethal assistance to the Syrian opposition has been on an upward trajectory, and the president has directed his national security team to identify additional measures so that we can continue to increase our assistance. As the president has said, we continue to explore every available, practical, and responsible means to end the suffering of the Syrian people and accelerate a political transition. All options are on the table."
In Washington, those who support more actively backing the rebel forces have been heartened to see a push for one of those options — legislation to arm the opposition. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ) offered a bill that would authorize the transfer of U.S.-supplied weapons, training, and supplies to vetted rebel groups.
But others say that for every Sen. Menendez and Sen. Marco Rubio who favor arming the rebels, there are an equal number of lawmakers quietly saying, "not so fast" — and who want nothing to do with measures that place the United States on a greater war footing. Recent polling shows not even half of the American public support military force in Syria, even "if it is confirmed that Syria used chemical weapons against anti-government groups."
As discussions about options such as establishing no-fly zones, arming Syrian rebels, and pushing for lethal aid continue, many diplomatic veterans say time is of the essence. Amb. Tom Pickering, who reached the Foreign Service’s highest rank of career ambassador and served as undersecretary of state for political affairs in a sterling diplomatic career that spanned five decades, has served as ambassador to both Russian and Jordan, two central players in the Syria crisis. He is among those who argue the United States can and must push harder for a diplomatic solution to the conflict.
"Letting things continue to go on the way they are doesn’t seem to me to do anything more than prolong the agony on a slow roll," says Pickering. "In the end all conflicts end with politics — there is going to be a political consequence of the fighting in Syria, and if we don’t seek to shape them then we are going to get what we get."
Pickering has been working on a plan to offer a way forward. This would include dropping the precondition that required Assad step down for talks to begin — an idea Kerry embraced this week — an immediate humanitarian ceasefire across Syria, and a U.N.-brokered election process that would lead toward a transitional government.
While all sides note that there are no good answers and no easy solutions, Pickering notes that slow diplomatic action has not increased America’s odds of finding the best outcome among a slew of difficult options.
"I think we have tended to put the diplomatic side aside as in the ‘too hard’ category," Pickering says. "We need to move this fairly soon or we are going to lose the opposition — certainly the al Qaedization of the opposition has been fairly serious and the fractionation of the opposition is very large."
On the other hand, those who’ve seen the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from a front-row diplomatic seat say caution is the better part of policy prudence when it comes to Syria.
"There are no good options here and the pressure is growing to do something because that is what we do, we do things," says former Amb. Ryan Crocker, who served as ambassadors to both Iraq and Syria and now is a senior fellow at Yale University. " But everything of significance I can think of doing is likely to make the situation worse, not better and put us in a worse position, not a better one." In Crocker’s view, the stalemate with the Russians at the United Nations regarding more concerted action has actually benefited America.
"The Russians are actually doing us a favor and I don’t think they are actually going to come off it because they see a rebel victory as deeply destabilizing for the region and particularly for them," Crocker say
s. "I hope they go on blocking any Security Council action because if you get an ‘all necessary measures’ resolution, then you are in a very exposed position if you don’t use all necessary means."
What Crocker does favor, however, is more humanitarian aid and non-lethal support, and greater backing for the Syrian opposition, which gathered this week in Istanbul, in the effort to come up with a vision for a post-Assad political transition.
Crocker, however, rejects the idea that Syria is simply Iraq in a different form. He cites the willingness of the Assad regime to wage war by any means necessary as among the key differences, meaning more weapons for the opposition will not necessarily lead to less fighting.
"They have been training, equipping, and organizing for this for a very long time," he says of Assad’s forces. "They have got the weaponry, they are ruthless and they know what the alternatives are. Whatever you say about them, they will stand and fight and you did not have that situation with a government in either Bosnia or Iraq."
Many in the diplomatic community say that Washington’s focus on military force has overshadowed a discussion of the very necessary diplomatic action required.
Those fears are expressed by veteran diplomatic negotiator, Amb. Dennis Ross, who spent more than a decade helping to shape U.S. policy in the Middle East and brokering peace talks among Israelis and Palestinians. Ross also served Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as a special advisor on Iran.
"What I worry about is that in the desire to avoid being sucked into something the situation will get to the point where we will have no choice but to intervene and in a way where the costs of intervention are higher than the y might have been," says Ross. "In terms of the cost of inaction, there is a human cost but there is also a strategic cost — the situation in Syria is going to get worse, and it is going to continue to affect all the neighbors, and the costs of not doing much will continue to go up."
Around the State Department and among diplomatic hands fears grow each day that the worst case scenarios for neighboring countries may actually come to pass — that Jordan will implode from the burgeoning refugee crisis, that Lebanon will descend into civil war, and that Israel may be drawn into the conflict in one way or another even more than it already has. There is also the scenario in which Syria ends up a failed and fragmented state in which segments of al Qaeda are embedded.
And then, of course, there is Iran.
While questions have swirled around whether and how chemical weapons have been used in Syria, what is certain is that Iran is watching to see how the United States deals with the "red line" President Obama demarcated on the use of chemical weapons.
"Having established a red line, if you don’t act, the consequences of that would be felt throughout the region and certainly by the Iranians," Ross says. "If we want to avoid the use of force against the Iranian nuclear program, the Iranians have got to believe that a failure of diplomacy is going to lead to action, and right now I don’t think they believe that."
Ross says he believes the Obama administration will pursue military action if diplomatic efforts concerning Iran’s nuclear program collapse. That said, if the Iranians don’t believe he will, it could make the use of force more rather than less likely, a worst-case outcome for all sides.
And when it comes to Syria, the optics are as important as the concrete actions.
"We need to be seen to be active in ways that don’t involve us taking military action," says Crocker. "That is more of what Sec. Kerry is doing, more humanitarian assistance and being sure that the world knows about it — and more interaction with the opposition."
What nearly everyone agrees upon, whatever level of involvement they favor, is that the options in Syria are limited and lousy.
"My sense is that the president is not at this stage interested in getting out in front in this situation" given the strong push toward a military campaign from the Hill and Washington allies, says Pickering. "I have a lot of sympathy for where he is leaning. My problem with the president has always been that he is a hell of a lot better at saying it than he is at doing it."