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More proof of State’s policy void in Syria

The State Department’s special envoy for Syria, Daniel Rubinstein, plans to move on, raising further concerns about the Obama administration’s commitment to resolving the conflict, beyond just fighting the Islamic State.

Two administration officials confirmed that President Barack Obama plans to nominate Rubinstein as ambassador to Tunisia within weeks. Although the nomination isn’t yet final, the State Department has already begun a search for a replacement to fill the Syria post, a job that has suffered from a downgrade in stature and authority over the past year.

Rubinstein has only led the State Department’s Syria team since March 2014. A career Foreign Service officer who speaks fluent Arabic, he came from State’s intelligence bureau, and replaced the ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford. Rubinstein, however, wasn’t given ambassador rank, and he was overshadowed by the White House, which exerts tight control over Syria policy. At the same time, he had to contend with a new team of State Department and military officials whose priority was to fight the Islamic State rather than find a solution to the Syria crisis.

“The Syria file is more complicated now because there’s both the issue of dealing with the opposition and the Assad problem and now there is the mission to fight ISIS in Syria,” Ford said. “The challenge that Danny has had and the challenge going forward is to make sure they are in fact one united effort.”

The new anti-IS effort at the State Department is led by retired Gen. John Allen and Ambassador Brett McGurk, who have publicly stated that they are pursuing an “Iraq first” strategy. The U.S. has begun a new program to train and equip a Syrian rebel army. The $500 million program is run by the U.S. military and isn’t being coordinated with the Syrian opposition groups that Rubinstein worked with.

Opposition leaders said Rubinstein dutifully kept up relationships with a variety of opposition groups but wasn’t proactive and couldn’t stand up to higher level officials in other parts of the U.S. government.

“Danny’s heart was with the Syrian struggle but he was just not empowered with a coherent policy that he could effectively explain to his Syrian interlocutors,” said Oubai Shahbandar, a former Syrian Opposition Coalition adviser, now with the consulting firm Dragoman Partners. “He wasn’t set up for success by an administration that continues to view Syria as a side show rather than the main front in the fight against ISIS and Iranian expansion.”

Rubinstein never had a signature project or an overall strategy for Syria. After the U.S. closed its embassy in Damascus in early 2012, Ford’s main project was to build and gain support for the Syrian Opposition Coalition, a group of civilian opposition leaders based in Turkey that Obama once called “the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.”

But that group failed to build support and credibility within Syria, and its military companion, the Supreme Military Council, exerted little control over rebel groups on the ground. Major U.S.-backed insurgent groups have been decimated in recent months, including the Syrian Revolutionary Front and Harakat Hazm, which disbanded last week.

The U.S.-backed Geneva peace process, which once was the venue for direct negotiations between the Syrian Opposition Coalition and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, has collapsed. Rubinstein’s successor will have to figure out whether and how to interact with the Syrian opposition leadership, while struggling to maintain influence inside the Obama administration.

U.S. airstrikes in Syria have liberated the town of Kobani, but collateral damage and a lack of coordination with insurgents on the ground have also created blowback. The U.S. and Turkey have failed to agree on how to fight the Islamic State inside Syria because the Turks want the Obama administration to commit to the ouster of Assad.

Without high-level enthusiasm for fixing U.S. policy toward Syria and with White House frustration with the opposition running high, the mission of Rubinstein’s replacement will be limited to explaining an unpopular strategy to insurgents who feel increasingly frustrated and abandoned.

“It’s a tough job and the outreach to the Syrian opposition is really difficult now, especially as American influence seem to be waning,” Ford said.

The Obama administration rightly points out that the U.S. has provided more assistance to the moderate Syrian opposition than any other country. But those groups are disintegrating as Western support wanes and members turn to Islamic organizations.

Unless Rubinstein is replaced quickly and his replacement is empowered, there may not be any moderate opposition for the U.S. to support. That would add credence to the notion that Assad is the only alternative to the terrorists, an idea the Syrian president has been eager to promote.

Josh Rogin is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about national security and foreign affairs.

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