Abject failure of Obama’s policy on Syria

Last week, the utter failure of White House efforts on Syria became embarrassingly public.

Lakdhar Brahimi, the U.N. special envoy who had brokered Syrian peace talks in Geneva, quit in frustration. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon singled out Syrian government stonewalling as a key cause of failure. So much for administration hopes of finding a political solution.

Also on Tuesday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius made an undiplomatic public critique of President Obama’s failure to use force as he had pledged if Assad used chemical weapons. Obama opted instead for a Russia-led accord that committed Assad to give up these weapons. Syria has not only failed to meet the deadline, but appears to have carried out 14 new chemical attacks — and is killing thousands with conventional weapons.

Yet the White House clings to a policy that has fueled a humanitarian catastrophe, while helping to create a new safe haven for jihadis on the border of Europe. When will this change?

No change appeared imminent when, also on Tuesday, Syrian opposition leader Ahmad Jarba met National Security Adviser Susan Rice at the White House. Obama dropped by, but there was no photo op and no joint statement. The reason seemed clear.

Jarba has been urging U.S. officials to arm rebel groups vetted by American intelligence agencies with a small number of surface-to-air missiles known as Manpads (man-portable air-defense systems). The opposition could use these missiles to shoot down helicopters that drop lethal barrel bombs on schools and clinics. This would shake Assad’s self-confidence and might lead to critical defections.

But a White House statement after the meeting made no mention of Jarba’s request, which is apparently still hanging. Rather, it noted that the president had praised Jarba’s coalition for trying to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis.

Political solution?

There will be no political solution unless Assad feels he is under great pressure, which he certainly doesn’t now.

“Assad is going for a complete military solution,” Jarba’s chief of staff, Monzer Akbik, told me. With Russian and Iranian help, the Syrian leader is about to stage a rigged ballot to “re-elect” himself president.

The Syrian leader seems determined to hold on to a north-south swath of Syria and use whatever means necessary to drive civilians out of rebel-held territory. Syria’s mammoth humanitarian crisis will grow — already, one-third of the population is displaced — and continue to destabilize its neighbors.

I asked Akbik what he thought could change the current dynamics. “One thing that would be useful is more U.S. support for the Free Syrian Army, with more sophisticated weaponry, in the joint fight we have with al-Qaida,” he replied. Vetted rebel groups linked with Jarba are already fighting the jihadis, as well as Assad, but they need more help.

Akbik also confirmed that Jarba was asking for Manpads. I asked him whether there was a danger, as some U.S. officials fear, that these weapons could fall into the wrong hands. His reply: Only a few such weapons would be needed to change Assad’s calculations, since he would lose his control of the skies.

“I think 20 weapons can make a difference,” he said. “We are thinking a small number at a time to keep control.” U.S. officials are reportedly studying technological means of tracking each of the weapons.

“A political solution needs some kind of leverage,” Akbik went on. “The regime needs to change its calculations in order (for it) to come to the table. The U.S. provision of sophisticated weapons would send a very strong message.”

Indeed. The first time a vetted rebel shoots down a regime barrel bomber it would convey the message that it’s time for Assad to stop killing his people and accede to real talks on a transition government. Then moderate Syrians, with outside help, can take on the jihadis.

A few surface-to-air missiles or a new jihadistan on the Mediterranean? It’s time for the White House to choose.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

©2014 Trudy Rubin

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