WASHINGTON -- For more than two years, Syrian opposition activists implored Western nations to help their rebellion against Bashar Assad’s regime, flying to world capitals to lobby policymakers and posting thousands of videos that offered foreigners a glimpse of their misery.
The holy grail was U.S. military intervention, which activists finally thought was imminent just last week but now appears to be a fading prospect as the Obama administration and Congress look instead to a proposal that would avert a strike if Assad surrenders his chemical weapons to international authorities.
To the opposition, the move is tantamount to betrayal as the U.S. narrows its strategic interest in Syria to Assad’s chemical arsenal. And if such weapons do end up contained and eventually destroyed, it’s unclear what else, if anything, would draw the United States in, even if the regime continues to crush the rebellion through conventional warfare.
Opposition activist Radwan Ziadeh, director of the Washington-based Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said the U.S. shift away from intervention was all the more bitter because he learned of it Tuesday during an emotional trip to Sarajevo, the European city where in the 1990s brutal attacks on a civilian population forced a NATO intervention. He was part of a Syrian delegation studying the experience of the Bosnians, who took their Arab visitors to mass gravesites and to meet survivors of Serb massacres.
“They told us they lost faith in the international community until the Americans took leadership,” Ziadeh said. “It’s clear that what’s going on in Syria is like what happened in Bosnia, so it’s not acceptable for Assad to hand over his chemical weapons and continue killing us by other means. It’s a shame on the international community.”
The debate over a strike has exposed just how deeply unpopular any form of U.S. intervention in Syria is among Americans, who’ve made it clear in poll after poll that they want the United States to sit out this fight. They don’t want to strike Syria, and they don’t want the United States to arm the rebels, according to poll results released this week.
A McClatchy/Marist poll showed that Americans oppose airstrikes by a margin of 58 percent to 31 percent. A CBS/New York Times poll found that 74 percent oppose arming the rebels. And Gallup found that “Americans who oppose U.S. military action in Syria are most likely to explain their position by saying that the events in Syria are none of the United States’ business, that the U.S. does not need to be involved in another war, or that the action is not well thought out, won’t work, or would lead to negative consequences for the U.S.”
Those statistics undoubtedly figured into Congress’ apparent rejection of Obama’s request for authorization of a military strike – the first time legislators had ever been asked to take a public stand on the Syrian conflict. Judging from the swift consideration of the chemical weapons proposal, the Obama administration, too, is searching for an exit from deeper commitment.
So, for all the grisly YouTube videos, the impassioned speeches about children choking on poison gas, and the declarations about giving Syrians a shot at democracy, the United States appears ready to tell Syrians good luck with their civil war.
“From the opposition standpoint, that certainly seems to be the message,” said Dan Layman, a spokesman for the Syrian Support Group, a rebel fundraising group with offices in Washington.
Layman rattled off previous disappointments – no U.S. response to Assad’s first suspected chemical attack, pledges of weapons that never materialized – and said that the opposition was at wit’s end. Layman said that Gen. Salim Idriss, the rebel commander whose name was mentioned in a congressional hearing Tuesday as a key U.S. point person among the opposition, is “extremely frustrated.”
“There’ve been a number of times that the opposition has tried to say, ‘Get behind us if you want to maintain any kind of credibility or influence,’” Layman said. “I don’t think we’re going to have an additional last chance after this. The trust is really failing now.”
Obama first called for Assad’s ouster in August 2011, and the United States has been present at key moments in the Syrian conflict since, doling out hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian and nonlethal aid, orchestrating the creation of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, and encouraging Persian Gulf nations to arm the rebels. Obama famously set a red line on the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons a year ago, and when the United States accused Assad of crossing it earlier this year, agreed to a secret plan to send weapons to the rebels.
Last month, after an alleged chemical weapons attack killed hundreds of people outside Damascus, the United States announced impending military action, only to stand down from attack mode once it became apparent that there was little support at home or abroad for such a move.
Syrian opposition advocates note that at no point has the administration announced intervention from a moral imperative to stop a bloody civil war that’s already resulted in 2 million refugees in neighboring countries and some 4 million Syrians displaced internally.
Now the United States seems to be moving even farther away, having defined its interests as corralling Syria’s chemical weapons.
Barely a week after Secretary of State John Kerry appealed to Americans not to be “spectators to slaughter,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told the Senate on Tuesday that “no one disputes that the atrocities committed in Syria in recent weeks are unspeakable.”
“But let’s be very clear about something,” McConnell continued. “These attacks, monstrous as they are, were not a direct attack against the United States or one of its treaty allies.”
Najib Ghadbian, the U.S. representative for the main opposition grouping, the Syrian Opposition Coalition, said such a stance was unsurprising because of the scars from “two long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” and a lack of American understanding of the complex conflict in Syria. For the latter, he blames “shallow” coverage in the U.S. media and opposition shortcomings in communicating their struggle to a Western audience.
Ghadbian, who’s still in regular contact with senior administration officials, said he hasn’t yet given up on an American intervention. He said he wishes there could be a crash course for the American public on Syria, to help them understand how it’s not like Iraq or Afghanistan.
However, close scrutiny now might only hurt the case, exposing how al Qaida-style extremists have become the most formidable of the rebel forces, how the opposition leaders have made little progress in coalescing into a government in waiting, and how the conflict has festered into a pick-your-poison scenario between Assad’s brutal regime and the mayhem that would be unleashed should he fall without any entity ready or capable enough to fill the void.
Ghadbian argues that the threat of a U.S. military strike is important for countering both Assad and al Qaida. Taking that off the table, as the Russian proposal does, would only sink chances of forcing Assad into a negotiated transition and embolden the extremists.
“The message of inaction will be twofold,” Ghadbian said. “Assad will continue his atrocities, and the extremists will say, ‘See? You can’t trust the international community. Let’s do this our own way.’”
William Douglas of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.