With the Syrian uprising in its fourth year, U.S. President Barack Obama may be further than ever from his goal of seeing rebels topple President Bashar al-Assad.
What’s more, U.S. and European officials say that Syria, because it has become a magnet and training ground for Islamic extremists from all over the world, now poses a greater security threat to the U.S., European nations and countries in the region than the Assad regime did before the uprising.
Obama is scheduled to meet this week with the president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, Ahmad al-Jarba, who’s been making the rounds in Washington in hopes of getting increased support, including U.S.-supplied weapons, for the moderate rebel forces he represents.
The conflict has claimed at least 150,000 lives, according to the United Nations, while leaving 6.5 million people displaced within Syria and at risk from attacks and hunger, and forcing almost 3 million to flee the country as refugees, a human tide that threatens to destabilize neighboring Lebanon and Jordan.
“We have the worst of all worlds in Syria right now,” said James Steinberg, who was deputy secretary of state under Hillary Clinton and now is dean of the Maxwell School at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York.
With Assad bolstered by arms and fighters from Iran and its Lebanese Shiite proxy Hezbollah, the conflict in’t moving in a favorable direction, an administration official, who was authorized to speak with reporters on the condition he not be named, said last week.
The situation is complicated by the rise of Sunni extremists seeking to defeat Assad in order to impose their strict interpretation of Islamic law. While few Americans have joined the fight, the war has drawn as many as 10,000 recruits from western Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, according to U.S. officials.
The administration “does not have a clear way forward,” said Fred Hof, who was Clinton’s special adviser for Syria in 2012. It is “sort of trapped in a sense of skepticism that there is anything at all useful” that the U.S. can do, he said this month.
Obama has said his priority is to avoid having the U.S drawn into another Mideast war. The U.S. is providing rebel factions it deems moderate with $287 million in non-lethal military aid, while the rebels’ Sunni Arab allies such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar supply weapons and money to pay fighters. The U.S. is spending $1.7 billion for humanitarian assistance.
Evidence of a limited covert aid effort by the U.S. can be found in recent photos and videos showing fighters with U.S.- made antitank missiles. Those weapons are in the hands of a faction of the Free Syrian Army, which is allied with the Syrian Opposition Coalition, Munzer Akbik, Jarba’s chief of staff, said May 8 at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Jarba is seeking to overcome Obama’s reluctance to send arms, particularly portable anti-aircraft weapons needed to thwart the deadly barrel-bomb attacks by Syrian aircraft. Jarba said the rebels are holding their ground and even gaining in some parts of Syria.
The rebels need more advanced weapons because “the balance of power must be changed on the ground in order to open the door” to a political resolution that removes Assad, he said in a speech May 7 at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington.
After meeting with Jarba, Democratic Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania wrote Obama last week urging a “more robust” strategy that includes providing anti-aircraft weapons.
National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said today that the administration hasn’t changed its position on providing man-portable air-defense systems, known by the acronym manpads, to the Syrian opposition.
“We have made very clear publicly our concerns about this particular system because it has a proliferation risk that does not serve our interest,” she said in an e-mail.
Citing the recent record in Libya, Egypt and Iraq, Obama has been skeptical generally that sending arms would guarantee a better outcome, according to an official who wasn’t authorized to speak about policy discussions.
The policy debate reflects a dilemma the U.S. faced even before the Arab Spring movement: how much support to give to those espousing democratic goals against autocratic regimes when the outcome can be chaos and an opening for terrorists.
Obama has resisted being drawn into the Syria conflict from the start. U.S. officials publicly predicted that Assad’s days were numbered even though the Defense Intelligence Agency had warned that Assad would be able to hold on to power for years.
As Iran and Russia increased their support for Assad in 2012, Obama rejected a secret recommendation to arm the rebels from Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey, and CIA Director David Petraeus, according to Hof.
“If that recommendation had been accepted and implemented in August 2012, we’d be in a different and better place right now in Syria,” said Hof, who resigned in September 2012 as Clinton’s envoy to the Syrian opposition.
“All of us made a mistake at the beginning” in not providing more military help to the moderate opposition, former French Ambassador to the U.S. Jean-David Levitte, a foreign policy adviser to President Nicolas Sarkozy from 2007 to 2012, said on a Washington Institute panel last week.
Steinberg, who left his State Department post in June 2011, said it isn’t clear that a different decision on arming the rebels would have changed the course of events.
The U.S. has sought a diplomatic resolution through negotiations in Geneva, which have stalled out. The UN special envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, has told officials he’s quitting.
Obama, who had vowed to order military strikes if Assad used chemical weapons, backed off his “red line” after government forces gassed civilians last August. He opted instead for a Russian-brokered deal for Syria to surrender all nerve gas and other chemical munitions by June 30, a letdown for the Syrian opposition and their U.S. supporters, such as Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona.
Responding to critics during an April 28 stop in Manila, Obama said he has succeeded against Assad because “we’re getting chemical weapons out of Syria without having initiated a strike.”
Obama paid a “very, very high price” for that deal, said Hof, who’s now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “It has enabled the regime to buy time, secure in the knowledge that it would not be attacked by the United States,” he said.
Assad has hung onto power and regained control of a swath of the country, last week adding the old city of Homs, the symbolic capital of the revolt.
The tide began turning against the rebels last May, when Shiite Hezbollah fighters overwhelmed rebels defending the Sunni town of Al-Qusair near the Lebanese border. That showed that Iran was all in to protect both Assad’s regime and its own weapons supply routes to its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon.
That battle “was the most stark example of how the infusion of manpower and expertise mattered to the Syrian regime,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation in New York. Yet it also demonstrated that Assad lacks the manpower to win the war, he said in an interview.
Obama administration official have said that an obstacle to providing arms has been the difficulty identifying reliable Syrian factions so that advanced weapons, such as portable anti-aircraft missiles, wouldn’t fall into the hands of terrorist groups.
Charles Dunne, who was a foreign policy adviser during President George W. Bush’s administration, said he was told a year ago by an administration official that U.S. intelligence knew enough then to make informed decisions among the factions.
“It’s a bit of a straw man to say that we don’t know about them,” Dunne, director of Middle East and North Africa programs at Freedom House, said during a panel discussion arranged by the Council on Foreign Relations.