Opinion: U.S. dragging its feet on Syria aid

June 30, 2013


— Centuries of theatergoers have puzzled over the riddle of why it took Shakespeare’s Hamlet so long to act, once he had set his mind to it. The Arab world has the same question about President Barack Obama’s delay in implementing his policies in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.

The military situation in Syria is slipping away as the president ponders. The regime of President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Iran, is creating a “cordon sanitaire” from Damascus to the Alawite heartland in northwest Syria. This campaign escalated this month when Assad’s forces drove Syrian rebels from Qusair, near the Lebanese border. Now, Assad’s forces are pushing Sunni rebels from Tal Kalakh, a little further north, continuing what increasingly appears to be a policy of ethnic cleansing.

“A divided Syria is going to be a scourge on its neighbors, region and the whole world, but mostly a catastrophe brought on the Syrian people for decades to come. ... Simply, a dictator should not be left to do so much destruction,” wrote Gen. Salim Idriss, the rebel commander, in a letter to the U.N. Security Council on Monday.

And what is the United States doing to deliver on Obama’s June 14 pledge to provide increased military aid for the rebels? Let me quote the succinct summary of one of my Syrian rebel contacts: “Nothing ... not even a single bullet.” Rebels also complain that the U.S. provided tepid leadership at a Friends of Syria meeting last weekend in Doha, Qatar.

If so, this is a mistake. Presidents cannot make promises of military assistance, and then watch their allies crushed. Syria is a policy nightmare, and Obama is right to want an eventual negotiated political transition. But that will not happen if Assad and Iran shatter the rebels in the face of an American promise of assistance.

Obama stated the right mission last Monday with PBS’ Charlie Rose:

“The goals are a stable non-sectarian, representative Syrian government that is addressing the needs of its people through political processes and peaceful processes. We’re not taking sides in a religious war between Shia and Sunni. Really what we’re trying to do is take sides against extremists of all sorts and in favor of people who are in favor of moderation, tolerance, representative government and, over the long term, stability and prosperity for the people of Syria.”

Correct policy. So make it happen: Someone in the White House needs to be asking every morning at an interagency meeting: What are we doing today to deliver on the president’s promise to help Idriss and the Syrian moderates prevail?

Without this focus, the president’s Syria strategy will fail. The beneficiaries will be the extremists Obama seeks to block: The Iranian-backed Hezbollah and other Shiite radicals on the one hand, and on the other, the Sunni extremist battalions among the rebels who would ally Syria with jihadists and Muslim Brothers in Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt.

Yet the administration has “the slows,” as President Lincoln memorably said of Gen. George McClellan before firing him. Although it has been obvious for a year that the moderate Syrian opposition lacks a solid command-and-control structure, very little has been done. A recent rebel memo to the State Department summarized the gaps in Idriss’ “Supreme Military Council” operation. Take the crucial area of training: There are no specialized trainers for handling chemical weapons, no training of elite forces, no training for protection of civilians, no leadership training, no communications or data training, and no planning for reconstruction.

Egypt is another puzzling example of bootless Obama administration policy in the Middle East. The Muslim Brotherhood government of President Mohamed Morsi is demonstrably failing. The country is effectively bankrupt, save for misguided charity from Qatar. With just 28 percent of the public supporting Morsi, according to a Zogby Research poll, an opposition coalition called Tamarod claims to have gathered 15 million signatures on a petition withdrawing confidence in the president. This weekend, protestors are gathering in Cairo.

What is the Obama administration’s position? You would think, surely, that it would remain neutral in the face of broad-based opposition to Morsi and the Brotherhood. It would urge the Egyptian army — the only institution in Egypt that retains wide support — to stay neutral as well, just as it did when protestors challenged President Hosni Mubarak two years ago.

But administration policy is so unclear that many Egyptians think the U.S. is backing Morsi in the face of public rejection, and they wonder why.

— David Ignatius is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


Abdu Omar 4 years, 9 months ago

After 4 years as president, we have seen this president make great claims but not follow with action. I am not sure why, but I will say he has lost my support. It is better to do something and fail than to do nothing. He had better get his policies to work.

MarkRcca 4 years, 9 months ago

Completely disagree. It is often better to do nothing than "to do something and fail", especially when failure exacts a heavy price. Your desire to "do something" seems to be driven not by a sense for good strategy, but merely by impatience.

tomatogrower 4 years, 9 months ago

So who are you going to support. We supported the Taliban at one time and look where that got us. Many of the rebels are no better than the present regime. And do you really think they'll stay friends with the US after they gain power? It's a civil war. They should settle it themselves and we should only send humanitarian aid for the refugees.

oldexbeat 4 years, 9 months ago

so civil stable syria is gone -- we provide weapons to the rebels and they become the future islamist such as happen with the taliban against the USSR. What's the advantage again ? Just asking. War against the future Syrian Islamists ? Is that what McCain wants ?

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 9 months ago

That's a scary thought - a police force that's $16.7 Trillion in debt!
That is $52,965.79 per citizen.

The United States cannot afford to police the world.

tomatogrower 4 years, 9 months ago

That's the "fiscally conservative" Republicans for you. Of course some of their puppet masters make a lot of money from these wars.

MarkRcca 4 years, 9 months ago

David, you haven't shown that the rebels are anywhere at risk of losing the war, from the bits and pieces of information you're offered. The rebels might have lost some ground here and there, but from what I'm reading, at the same time they're gaining ground elsewhere.

I remember a few months back when the rebels took the town of Raqqa, everyone was shouting that Assad's days are numbered. That was premature, as we can now well see. It is quite likely that the recent loss of Qusair by the rebels is nothing more than part of this continued back-and-forth.

These towns will change hands many times before the war is over. It's too soon to declare victory or defeat for either side.

jhawkinsf 4 years, 9 months ago

Interesting that you seem to be predicting a long, drawn out conflict, with I assume to be many more deaths and many more displaced. Earlier though, you criticized someone for being impatient.

The estimates I've seen suggest the numbers of dead are nearing 100,000 and the number of displaced is already in the 3-5 million range. Given this, I wonder when it becomes appropriate to be impatient? Will it be justified when those numbers are doubled? Tripled? More? When exactly does impatience become a good thing?

jhawkinsf 4 years, 9 months ago

I wouldn't characterize someone as moderate if they've killed nearly 100,000 of his own people, displaced millions and recently used chemical weapons. I wouldn't characterize someone as moderate if they maintain close ties to the radical clerics in Iran and a terrorist organization in Hezbollah. And having close ties to regimes such as Russia and China, with their well documented human rights abuses doesn't suggest moderation either. From everything I've seen, the civil war has strained relations with every member of the EU and with truly moderate Arab countries in the region. And the chances of Assad recognizing Israel anytime soon are truly infinitesimal. In fact, the only part of your post that is accurate is the spelling of his name.

BTW - That link has to be one of the most foolish links yet posted, referring to Assad's wife as one hot piece of Assad. Really, dude?

Abdu Omar 4 years, 9 months ago

Not only that, Jhawkinsf, his father killed 100,000 people when they threaten his regime. He used sarin gas, I heard, so he learned quite young on how to deal with those who want freedom and to overthrow oppresion. I have been to Syria and I have never felt more uneasy anywhere but there.

tomatogrower 4 years, 9 months ago

Oh yes. Those rebels are ready to set up a democracy with religious freedom and free speech. Dream on.

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