America’s Syria policy appears to have hit a dead end

05/29/2013 7:04 PM

06/05/2013 5:06 PM

With Russia pledging missiles to Syrian President Bashar Assad, the civilian opposition unable to agree on much of anything, and regime loyalists pushing rebels out of strategic areas, the United States finds itself with no clear policy path to its oft-stated goal of Assad’s ouster.

Unclear from the beginning, U.S. policy on Syria has grown only more contradictory and ad hoc since the popular uprising that the Obama administration was quick to support transformed into a brutal civil war with a death toll now beyond 70,000. Both tracks of the State Department’s latest “dual-track” approach have led to dead ends, with neither a strong political opposition nor a trusted, viable rebel force ready to take charge in the increasingly unlikely event that the Assad regime should collapse.

Wednesday dealt fresh setbacks to U.S. and international plans to build the political and military capabilities of the anti-Assad movement. Weeklong opposition talks in Istanbul ended without meeting the goals of expanding membership of the Islamist-dominated group or naming an interim government – failures that could cost leaders crucial international support. Also Wednesday, Hezbollah-backed regime forces claimed victory in the vicious battle for control of Qusayr, a strategically important town near the Lebanese border.

Analysts who’ve closely monitored the conflict for the past two years blame a series of miscalculations and half-measures for the lack of a strong U.S. position on Syria. While the White House and its supporters in the foreign policy community defend the current approach as “cautious,” other analysts see it as frozen and out of touch with events on the ground.

One example: As Hezbollah fighters bragged about their capture of most of Qusayr, State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki demanded that the Lebanese militant group withdraw its fighters from Syria “immediately.” The order was obviously toothless.

Michael Hanna, a Middle East specialist at the Century Foundation research institute in New York, said this incongruity is at the heart of the policy problem.

Russia, Iran and Hezbollah have all pitched in wholeheartedly to fight for the Assad regime’s survival. On the other hand, Hanna said, the U.S. tough talk isn’t backed up by the same all-in attitude, leaving the administration vulnerable to embarrassments such as the Russians trumpeting a missile shipment to Assad only hours after meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry on plans for a peace summit.

“You have a very serious mismatch of rhetoric and commitment on the two sides,” Hanna said. “Theirs happens to match up. Ours does not.”

Many foreign officials and analysts have now resigned themselves to the possibility of years of bloodshed before a transition, but U.S. officials still seem to be gambling that Assad will go fairly soon. Just this month, a State Department spokesman reiterated that Assad’s “days are numbered” – a mantra U.S. officials have repeated for more than 500 days with no sign of an imminent fall.

Other governments may have concluded that it’s time to rethink a scenario in which Assad or at least some elements of his regime end up remaining in power, but the United States doesn’t seem able to entertain even the possibility of an outcome other than regime change.

“I have no indication that U.S. policy has changed in any way, shape or form to walk back the fact that Assad must go,” a State Department official said on condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive diplomacy.

Even if Assad is forced out, so far there’s no clear day-after scenario, sowing fears of a free for all among jihadist groups that h’ve been instrumental to the rebel cause, more moderate rebels who only marginally follow a central command, opposition politicians inside Syria who claim legitimacy for not fleeing, and the exiled opposition politicians who meet regularly with foreign powers.

The opposition’s disarray was laid bare Wednesday with members’ failure to add a significant bloc of liberals to blunt the domination of Islamists on the main 60-member coalition – a demand of the coalition’s biggest backers, the United States and Saudi Arabia. In addition, four opposition factions threatened to withdraw recognition from the Syrian Opposition Coalition, saying in a statement that the coalition had failed to adequately represent the Syrian people.

And then came a vaguely worded statement of their stance on the U.S.-Russian plan for the first serious peace talks in the 26-month conflict, tentatively scheduled for next month in Geneva. The statement, released via Facebook, suggested that the coalition’s participation in the talks, to which the Syrian government already has agreed, hinged on “binding guarantees” from the international community that the goal was the removal of Assad and his security apparatus. The statement also asked that foreign powers “empower revolutionary forces to defend oppressed Syrian people.” In short: send weapons.

The British and French have moved closer to that position and will be able to do so soon with the easing of the European Union’s arms embargo, but they’re still lobbying their American allies to reconsider their long-held position of sending only “nonlethal aid” to support the rebels.

“They still see the administration as hopelessly meandering, with the U.S. looking at Geneva as a way to relieve the pressure to undertake a more costly intervention,” said Shashank Joshi, a London-based analyst who monitors Syria for the Royal United Services Institute, a defense and security research center.

Yet again, the State Department’s response to the opposition’s latest fumbles was noticeably at odds with the accounts from Istanbul. Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, conceded that the opposition’s progress has “taken longer than anticipated,” but she seemed upbeat about the chances for the disparate factions to get their act together in time to participate in the Geneva conference, though her own statement was hardly an example of clarity.

“I know there have been a lot of comments out there from different members of the opposition about different requirements and different demands,” Psaki said. “We are working very closely with them, and working very closely with all components, but we expect that we will be working with the elected members of the opposition once that is done, in terms of planning and looking ahead to the conference.”

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