White House Talks on Syria Intensify Before Obama Heads to G-8

The worsening situation in Syria has accelerated deliberations inside the Obama administration about the next steps for the U.S. ahead of next week’s Group of Eight Summit with world leaders.

“We’re fully aware about the worsening situation in Syria and are assessing options in light of that,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters today.

The U.S. is “concerned by the involvement of outside actors in trying to prop up” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Carney said. At the same time, the Syrian opposition “has strengthened and has become more sophisticated” and the U.S. has “worked more directly with them and developed stronger relationships with leaders within the opposition.”

Carney’s comments came a day after top U.S. national security officials met at the White House to discuss options that may include arming the Syrian rebels, and after former President Bill Clinton said at an event yesterday that President Barack Obama should act more forcefully in Syria.

The Syrian rebellion will be a leading topic when Obama and other world leaders meet next week at the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland. The group is composed of leaders from the U.S., France, U.K., Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada and Russia.

Clinton, according to a report published by Politico, said that aid to the Assad regime from Russia as well as Iran and Hezbollah raises the question of whether the U.S. should “do something to try to slow their gains and rebalance the power so that these rebel groups have a decent chance.” Hezbollah is considered a terrorist group by the U.S. and Israel.

Asked to respond to Clinton’s critique, which was made in a closed event at the McCain Institute for International Leadership in New York, Carney said that Obama welcomes advice from “people who have expertise in this matter” while taking a long-view approach.

White House Meeting

Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were among participants yesterday at the White House meeting on Syria policy, according to a U.S. official.

Kerry canceled plans for a trip to the Middle East this week to participate in the talks including discussions about what the U.S. can do to aid rebel forces opposing Assad’s regime. The official asked not to be identified because the meeting wasn’t publicly announced.

Obama didn’t attend as he was traveling for political events in Massachusetts and Florida.

“We’re meeting to talk about the various balances in this issue right now,” Kerry told reporters yesterday, speaking about deliberations over Syria policy in general and not about the White House meeting. Assad is “making it very difficult” for the U.S. and allies to find a peaceful solution to the conflict, he said.

Helping Rebels

“I have nothing to announce about that at this point, but clearly the choice of weapons that he has engaged in, across the board, challenge anybody’s values and standards of human behavior,” Kerry said at a joint news conference with U.K. Foreign Minister William Hague. “We’re going to have to make judgments for ourselves about how we can help the opposition to be able to deal with that.”

Obama’s administration is under pressure from allies and critics in Congress, such as Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, to provide arms to the Syrian opposition, which has said it won’t participate in peace talks proposed by Kerry until the U.S. does so. McCain has said Assad has no incentive to come to peace talks if he is winning on the battlefield.

The administration has refrained from sending arms, in part because of concern that the weapons could make their way into the hands of radicals within the opposition.

Homs Focus

Last week, Assad’s regime captured the strategically located city of al-Qusair, giving government forces control of the road that leads from Damascus to Lebanon. The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in the U.K., said Syrian forces have shifted their focus to the city of Homs, a rebel stronghold 30 kilometers (19 miles) northeast of Qusair.

In a move to increase support for the rebels, the U.S. yesterday waived restrictions on some exports to opposition-held areas of Syria to help people there survive and rebuild.

The waiver by the administration allows U.S. companies to avoid sanctions for the export of commodities, software and equipment to opposition-held territories in farming, food processing, power generation, oil and gas production, construction, engineering and transportation.

The aim is to help Syrians get by and rebuild shattered cities, said a second official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity. The waiver was prompted, in part, by companies asking to export goods such as water-purification systems to rebel-held areas, the official said.

U.S. Waiver

The waiver was announced by e-mail as Kerry and Hague were speaking at the State Department. The British diplomat cited a need to tip the scales in favor of the opposition.

“We will have to be prepared to do more to save lives, to pressure the Assad regime to negotiate seriously, and to prevent the growth of extremism and terrorism if diplomatic efforts are going to succeed,” Hague said.

Kerry and Hague stressed their desire for a political end to the conflict and their certainty that weapons alone aren’t the solution.

“It’s not a question to me whether or not the opposition can, quote, win,” Kerry said. “It’s a question of whether or not we can get to this political solution.”

Israel’s concerns that anti-aircraft weaponry could be used against them are weighing on U.S. decision-making, said David Ottaway, a senior scholar at the Wilson Center, a Washington policy group.

Saudi Disappointment

Officials in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which are providing weapons to Syrian rebels, have been frustrated by U.S. insistence that they not send anti-aircraft weaponry, said Ottaway, who recently returned from the Saudi kingdom.

“They’re very disappointed in the U.S. attitude,” Ottaway said in a phone interview. “Not only are we not providing arms, we’re preventing the arms the Syrian rebels most need -- the anti-aircraft missiles -- from going to them, mostly because of Israeli concerns that they could get into the hands of extremists who could target Israeli aircraft.”

In a report yesterday, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon recommended increasing the number of peacekeeping troops in the Golan Heights, monitoring a 40-year cease-fire between Syria and Israel, to 1,250 from a dwindling 900-person force. He also said the peacekeepers’ mandate should be extended by six months.

The recommendation comes as countries including Croatia and Austria are pulling out of the force as the area becomes increasingly dangerous due to spillover from the two-year Syrian conflict.

“The ongoing military activities in the area of separation continue to have the potential to escalate tensions between Israel and the Syrian Arab Republic and to jeopardize the cease-fire between the two countries,” Ban said in the report.

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