As President Obama enters his second term, Syria has become the most urgent test of his foreign policy leadership and style.
If Obama finally takes ownership of the effort to unseat Bashar al-Assad (which would not require U.S. troops or planes), there’s still a chance of preventing a Syrian implosion. If the administration leads from in front, it may be possible to head off a strategic disaster that would endanger Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Israel.
Yet early signs indicate that Obama will continue the muddled Syria policy of his first term, while continuing to lead from way, way behind.
Our Syria policy is unclear to both our enemies and our allies, as well as to the Syrian rebels. The administration has long called for Assad’s ouster, but has not really pursued it. It has chased a diplomatic option, even though Assad’s main ally, Moscow, won’t dump him until it believes he is virtually defeated. As for sending Patriot missile batteries to Turkey, that has symbolic value, but it won’t affect the situation on the ground in Syria.
Washington has outsourced the arming of rebel groups to Gulf states that prefer Islamist fighters. Meantime, the United States won’t help arm secular and moderate rebel commanders. So do we want Assad gone or don’t we? Do we want an Islamist Syria or don’t we?
Ordinary Syrians are also cynical about the U.S. “red line” on the use of chemical weapons. They feel it gives Assad a virtual green light to use any other weapon against civilians.
No wonder a Turkish official told me during a recent visit to Ankara: “We want more clarity in the United States position. People expect more from the United States.”
This lack of clarity haunts U.S. policy even after the election. Last week, the United States, with European and Arab allies, recognized a new Syrian civilian opposition council that it had helped godfather. The hope is that this group will provide a means to funnel more humanitarian aid into Syria. (Since U.S. and allied officials were able to organize this group after our presidential election, one wonders why they couldn’t have done it before.)
However, U.S. policymakers still insist this new civilian group — not the rebel fighters — is the key to overthrowing Assad. The new council supposedly will be able to convince Assad’s Alawite sect and other minorities that they can safely abandon their support for the regime. U.S. officials also hope the council will be able to assert civilian control over rebel fighters.
Such hopes are badly misplaced. Civilians alone cannot determine the Syrian endgame. Unless Obama’s policy becomes more robust — and more convincing to the region — the Syrian conflict will spiral out of control.
The arguments for not arming the rebels are long outdated. If we were concerned weapons might fall into the wrong hands, we should have put more resources into vetting rebel commanders. U.S. officials have been permitted to meet with Free Syrian Army commanders only in the last few months. And from what I hear, the amount of CIA resources devoted to the task is still underwhelming.
Even now, there is plenty of information about key Syrian rebel commanders who are secular or moderate Muslims to whom weapons could be directed. But they are skeptical at best, and hostile at worst, about U.S. intentions.
Col. Abdul-Jabbar Akidi, a secular senior rebel commander in Aleppo, told me in November: “Syrians believe that America is with Bashar Assad. America does not support us.”
It’s no wonder he feels that way, since we have outsourced delivery of weapons to the Qataris and Saudis. By doing so, we’ve ensured that the lion’s share goes to hard-line Salafi militias or those linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Saudis were handed control of a major meeting of Free Syrian Army commanders last week in Turkey with the goal of setting up a unified command. Early reports say the command includes many with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists. Why should we be surprised?
Perhaps the strongest indicator of a policy muddle was last week’s designation of the Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organization. True, the group has some al-Qaida links. But it has waged and won some of the toughest battles against Assad’s forces, which is why most rebel commanders oppose the U.S. designation.
Echoing many other rebel commanders, Col. Akidi told me: “We are not united with jihadi groups, but we fight together with all people who fight Assad.” For the same reason, the president of the new civilian rebel coalition, Mouaz al-Khatib, disagreed publicly with the blacklisting of the group.
If the United States were arming non-Islamist rebels, they wouldn’t need Jabhat al-Nusra’s help. If the administration weren’t outsourcing to the Saudis and Qataris, non-Islamist fighters would be in a stronger position.
Instead, U.S. officials have sown confusion over whom they support. They have undermined secular fighters and given a boost to those with beards. And they have confused our friends and opponents as to our aims, making a negotiated settlement less likely as neither Moscow nor Tehran thinks we are serious about ousting Assad. The Syrian dictator probably doesn’t think so, either, which will encourage him to try to hold on in Damascus.
The longer this conflict lasts, and the stronger the Islamists become, the more likely it is that sectarian war will spill over Syria’s borders. The only chance of preventing that is to speed up the endgame. That would require Obama to convince all parties, friend and foe, that he wants Assad gone.
Rhetoric will be no substitute for concrete actions. The time remaining is short.