WASHINGTON -- On Aug. 18 last year, President Barack Obama issued a statement that for the first time demanded that Syrian leader Bashar Assad step aside. Similarly worded statements came from Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the European Union that same day.
Nearly a year and thousands of dead later, U.S. policy on Syria’s crisis remains an enigma.
American officials refuse to acknowledge openly that they support the rebels, but they provide the fighters with nonlethal aid and look the other way as U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf send them weapons and ammunition.
Washington publicly promotes the “progress” of nonviolent opposition leaders toward organizing themselves, but so far it hasn’t formally recognized any bloc as an alternative to Assad because the dissidents, beset by internal feuding, have failed to form a potential government-in-waiting.
U.S. decision-makers still talk about a peaceful resolution, though the notion seems quaint as both sides dig in for a protracted civil war that’s lured Islamist extremists from throughout the region and sent the death toll to 20,000 or more.
Washington’s grim choices and lukewarm support for the rebels seem light-years away from the Obama administration’s early cheerleading of the uprising, which began 17 months ago as a challenge to the Assad dynasty’s 40 years of authoritarian rule.
Seemingly out of good options, the best the Obama administration can hope for, according to analysts closely monitoring the crisis, is that the ragtag rebels can finish the job rather than force a risky U.S. intervention – which the government is loath to do, especially with a presidential election looming.
“There’s no U.S. strategy on Syria. They had this strategy of diplomacy combined with economy, but when it failed, they didn’t develop anything to replace it. And when the elections started approaching, they suspended everything,” said Mohammad Abdallah, a former Syrian opposition spokesman who heads the Syria Justice and Accountability Center, a partly U.S.-funded center in Washington to document atrocities.
The current U.S. position, Abdallah said, is: “Our hearts are with you, but we wish we could go to sleep and wake up to find Assad gone.”
With no breakthroughs expected on the diplomatic front, the administration continues to roll out sanctions against Assad and his allies. A new round was announced Friday against Sytrol, Syria’s state-run oil company, alleging that it had supplied gasoline to Iran, and against the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah on charges that it had provided training and logistical support to Assad’s regime. The Syrian regime and Hezbollah, which is on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations, already are so isolated internationally that it’s unclear what, if any, punitive effect such measures would carry.
There was little for rebels to celebrate Friday on the battlefield, either. In Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city, the rebels reportedly have run low on ammunition and had pulled out of key areas they’d sought to control, including the city’s landmark Citadel, a U.N.-recognized world heritage site that’s been badly damaged in the fighting. Syria’s state news agency SANA boasted that the government had beat back an attempt by “mercenary terrorists” – the regime’s label for rebels – to capture the airport. A dozen people died when a shell struck a bakery where they were waiting to buy bread.