WASHINGTON -- At a public talk this month, a European Union official eschewed the bland language of diplomacy and told some hard truths about Syria: that the West had ignored Arab leaders warnings that President Bashar Assad wouldnt go easily, that the opposition is in no shape to negotiate and that humanitarian aid reaches only a fraction of the needy.
Wishful thinking harms people, warned Kristalina Georgieva, the EU commissioner for international cooperation, humanitarian aid and crisis response, speaking at the New America Foundation, a public policy institute in Washington. Because of wishful thinking, people die.
Yet blunt assessments of the situation in Syria are still rare in Washington, where Obama administration officials cling to the dream that a moderate opposition can coalesce, beat back al Qaida extremists and shape Syria into a pluralistic democracy after Assad exits via a negotiated transition.
In reality, none of the ground conditions for such an outcome are in place, according to analysts who monitor the countrys civil war, which is in its third year with a death toll of more than 115,000. And with al Qaida and other militant Islamists dominating the rebel side, its unclear whether theres even the political will anymore to see the opposition carry out the stated U.S. policy goal of toppling Assad.
Anyone paying attention to the rise of radicals has to be coming to these conclusions. Assad is better for America than a jihadist win, said Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and the author of the blog Syria Comment.
Though U.S. officials privately acknowledge many of the obstacles that Georgieva raised in her talk, theres little such discussion in public. At White House and State Department briefings, in congressional hearings and at think tank events, U.S. officials keep pushing a message that the Syrian opposition is becoming more unified, moderate forces will prevail and Assad must go. Theres seldom an answer to the crucial question of who or what would replace him.
Day after day, the State Department gives updates on preparations for a long-delayed peace conference in Geneva, even though opposition leaders have said they wont attend.
Even if they were to show, theyd be representing shell organizations with little sway in the conflict. The civilian Syrian Opposition Coalition never had much constituency in the country, and the armed Supreme Military Command has seen its fighting core drift away this month to join Islamist rebel alliances.
And, of course, Assad rejects the very objective of such an undertaking his departure so theres little reason to expect negotiations on that topic, especially now that the regime is once again in the pole position as the rebels turn against one another and Washington takes military intervention off the table as long as a deal to remove chemical weapons holds.
Nevertheless, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki says the so-called Geneva 2 conference will be in mid-November, and would be based on principles that were agreed to at a first Geneva gathering in June 2012. The same old sticking point remains: The opposition wont go unless Assads departure is a precondition; the regime rejects any such preconditions.