With diplomatic options dead in the water, camps are forming in the administration about how to arm the Syrian rebels.
- By Gayle Tzemach LemmonGayle Tzemach Lemmon is fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.
Immediately after Susan Rice was named U.S. national security advisor and Samantha Power was tapped as America’s next ambassador to the United Nations, Washington had a simple question: Could the Obama administration’s two newest liberal hawks mold U.S. foreign policy? And will the exit of current National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, the architect of President Barack Obama’s "pivot to Asia," mean a pivot toward a more energetic intervention in Syria?
Right now, the answer to that last question is: Nobody knows. The White House kicked off this week with meetings to consider more-aggressive options in Syria, including potentially arming the rebels in either a modest or a larger way. But if the United States adopts a new Syria policy, State Department insiders agree that it won’t be because of Power or Rice — it will be the work of Obama himself.
"Ultimately it has always been the president’s decision," said a State Department official, who also noted that Rice and Power would inevitably receive credit or blame for any policy evolution regardless of their impact. "If it changes, it is because he has changed his mind."
So far, Obama remains reluctant to get more involved in a conflict that is estimated to have killed more than 80,000 people and left more than 1 million displaced. Last fall, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, then-CIA Director David Petraeus, and then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had backed a plan to arm the rebels. The president said no, wary of leading the country into another intractable conflict after a decade of wars. His skepticism was shared by Donilon, along with Vice President Joe Biden. Rice, then ambassador to the United Nations, was also said to be skeptical.
The U.S. bureaucracy is currently divided over how to respond to the worsening crisis in Syria. On one side are those who see the fight as a quagmire from which the United States will not easily be freed. On the other are those who say that looking irrelevant in the Middle East will eventually come back to haunt Washington.
The State Department is out in front of the White House and is actively pushing for arming the rebels. Meanwhile, the Pentagon is far less forward-leaning, focused on the risks and potential pitfalls of lethal aid and potential military action. Indeed, Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey has publicly called intervention in Syria "very difficult."
However, shifting facts on the ground might empower those favoring more energetic intervention. While Secretary of State John Kerry had been pushing for peace talks between the regime and the opposition, those plans remain on hold as rebel losses mount. Discussions to be held in Geneva already have been postponed once, and no rain date looks imminent. Some have criticized Kerry for getting played diplomatically by the Russians, who continue to make arms shipments to the Syrian government, but others say that the United States must first be seen as exhausting all diplomatic options, even if they are lousy. The improbability of a negotiated solution, combined with military losses for the rebels, has spurred discussion in the White House about what comes next. Moreover, the intervention of Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters to buttress the Syrian government’s forces has sparked fears in Washington that Tehran could actually emerge from the conflict in a stronger position in Syria.
"If anything gets us moving, it will be the Iran threat," said the State Department official. "Right now Iran is winning the strategic game in the region."
So far, however, the White House appears to be erring on the side of caution. A second State Department official said there was energy to do more — but "what ‘more’ looks like is a completely different question." Despite the very real concern about rebel losses and Iranian intervention, this official said, "I just don’t know when [U.S. policy] will change."
Both officials agree that Obama is not on the verge of authorizing a far-reaching and aggressive new Syria policy. Caution, rather than energetic intervention, is still the president’s default position.
"I don’t think they are mentally prepared to do anything significant," said the first official. "They might do some covert arming, but I think what is needed might actually have to be targeted strikes — and I just highly doubt that they will do it."
Some diplomatic veterans are concerned that splitting the difference will not bolster U.S. influence.
"If the objective is to affect the balance of power, but to use minimal means, that doesn’t make any sense," says former Ambassador Dennis Ross, who spent more than a decade helping to shape U.S. policy in the Middle East and served Secretary of State Clinton as a special advisor on Iran. Ross argues that the United States should "be prepared" to consider deploying Patriot missiles along the Turkey-Syria border as part of a "limited no-fly" zone and says the same thing may have to be considered for Jordan.
On the idea of arming the rebels, Ross notes "it is only likely to be effective if it is done in a very significant way," with training, funding, and equipment part of the package. "If you are going to go down this route, then you ought to go down this route in a really serious way. That means being prepared to shape the whole operation and with a very senior person, maybe a four-star [general] in charge of it."
Ross notes that lack of U.S. military action to date could mean that any greater intervention could speak even louder than it otherwise would. "The worst thing is to do something in a very limited way that engages you a bit more, but has a very limited effect," says Ross.
But even if the White House is not primed for a dramatic about-face on Syria, the opposition’s advocates in Washington say that in the past few months they have seen the first signs of positive change from the Obama administration. Dan Layman, a spokesman for the Syrian Support Group, a U.S. advocacy group with extensive contacts to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), says his organization started noticing a shift in late February and March. "From that point, when we got the OK to go in with food and medicine, they already were talking about their interest in sending in harder stuff," he said.
State Department officials asked Layman and his colleagues this year to find out from Gen. Salim Idriss, who leads the opposition FSA, what he needed in terms of more potent nonlethal aid. The answer included communications gear, including radios and satellite uplinks, to coordinate battlefield movements.
"I would honestly suspect that we are going to see this before Aug. 1," Layman said, referring to increased nonlethal assistance. "I am not sure we are going to see arms this summer, but I am 100 percent confident that we are going to see more nonlethal stuff this summer."
Layman noted that his team just last week finished coordinating the delivery of a U.S.-funded $8 million shipment of nonlethal supplies to Idriss’s forces. This shipment included more than 200,000 halal meals, several hundred personal medical kits, and field hospital supplies.
In Layman’s view, such shipments s
imply mark the beginning of Washington’s relationship with the Syrian rebels. He views the food and medical supplies as a "pilot" that will prove that Idriss and the FSA can be trusted to distribute supplies to moderates without bolstering extremists.
"If that is done successfully we can amp it up to the nonlethal aid that is communications equipment or night vision goggles or radios that they have originally mentioned," Layman said.
And then, perhaps, weapons?
"We are hopeful with the Rice and Power shift that the White House is going to be leaning forward on Syria even more than they have been," Layman said.
Coming days will tell. In the meantime the fighting continues.
"We are dying; we are suffering," said Idriss. "The situation is very dangerous now; we need someone who can help us." That was two weeks ago.