The risks of intervening, he said, are “real and serious, but the risks of continuing to do nothing are worse.”
Administration officials have spent millions to build up a credible, pluralistic opposition coalition to little avail: The leaders are at loggerheads over competing ideologies and are derided by Syrians as exiles riding out the revolt in five-star hotels. They’ve failed to pick a prime minister or agree on whether to negotiate with the regime, much less form a viable government in waiting.
And the leader of the U.S.-backed coalition, Mouaz al Khatib, has expressed support for the militant rebel Nusra Front faction, which the U.S. has designated as part of the al Qaida in Iraq terrorist group.
Even as the U.S. tries to empower the non-Islamist rebel forces via a reported covert training program in Jordan and a new pledge of food rations and medical supplies, Nusra and its allies remain the most successful at bloodying the regime and capturing territory.
While there have been sporadic protests against Nusra’s Islamist rule in some liberated areas, there’s nowhere near the backlash the United States is betting on as it tries to isolate the Islamists. What Syrians will remember is that the Islamists – via their backers such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia – brought guns to the fight, while the Obama administration was embroiled in an internal debate that ended with the president deciding against arming the rebels.
The administration is providing the Syrian opposition with humanitarian and “nonlethal” assistance. Vice President Joe Biden told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee last week that while the administration is intent on seeing Assad removed, “we are not signing up for one murderous gang replacing another in Damascus.”
Biden said the U.S. recognized the danger that Syria’s weapons arsenals posed and had set a “clear red line” that would be triggered by their use or transfer. Administration officials have said the red line is the use of the weapons, though Obama suggested last August that the red line would be set on moving or using the weapons.
The Israeli threshold for action – as illustrated earlier this year with an airstrike – appears lower. Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, said Wednesday that Israel had made it clear that if “Syria attempts to transfer chemical or game-changing weapons to Hezbollah, we will act."
Israeli officials wouldn’t telegraph what they intend to tell Obama, but Oren said they wanted Assad to go.
“We understand there’s a growing jihadist element among the opposition,” he said. “But Assad’s departure will deliver a tremendous blow to Hezbollah and Assad’s patron in Tehran."
The White House and State Department sidestepped questions about a reported covert training program. But some analysts expect stepped-up intervention.
“Slowly but surely, we may get nudged into providing more direct military aid in a clandestine fashion,” said Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, specializing in the military and security affairs. He and other analysts say the ambiguous nature of the conflict – a “highly complex, sectarian civil war in which it’s very hard to understand who is doing what and why” – makes it easier for Obama to resist heavy engagement.
In Jordan in particular, White said, Obama is likely to hear that for the beleaguered kingdom, “the refugee problem is getting worse. The potential for an Islamist spillover is getting worse. He’s very likely to hear that more needs to be done to get the war over.”
The pressure is growing for some way to secure the weapons, said David Ottaway, a senior scholar at the Wilson Center who’s a former Washington Post Cairo bureau chief.
“If there’s any indication of the government using chemical weapons, both Israel and the U.S. are pretty much committed to going in and stopping that,” he said.