Washington’s quandary in Syria
Washington - Even with rebels making gains against President Bashar Assad in the north and south of Syria and the regime showing fractures within its senior ranks, when it comes to Syria, US President Barack Obama’s administration is finding little reason to celebrate.
The new developments, according to US officials, have put Washington between a rock and a hard place as it rejects the Assad government but is increasingly concerned about the rise of jihadist forces in the opposition.
The new president of the Western-backed opposition government in exile, the Syrian National Coalition, Khaled Khoja, made his first visit to Washington in early May. He told The Arab Weekly that, while there “were some positive indications [from the administration] on new support for the rebels”, the gap remains significant between what the Syrian opposition needs and what the Obama administration is offering.
Khoja’s major request of the administration was for anti-aircraft missiles to help the rebels establish safe zones and counter Assad’s air superiority. The United States has been reluctant to provide such weapons, either directly or through other countries, out of fear they would fall in the hands of the Islamic State (ISIS) or al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and could be used to target civilian aeroplanes.
The US veto on supplying anti-aircraft missiles remains in place, according to a former US official who meets regularly with the administration.
Several regional leaders who visited Washington in April — among them Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and former Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri — requested logistical help from the administration in enforcing air cover to protect rebel-held areas.
But despite these requests and Khoja’s assurance that 3,000 members of the Free Syrian Army have knowledge of how to operate and protect anti-aircraft missiles, the Obama administration remains reluctant. Except for the coalition air strikes targeting ISIS positions in Syria, Washington has kept a hands-off approach to the crisis to avoid getting sucked into a “war of attrition”.
But as the war intensifies and the political initiatives led by UN envoy Staffan de Mistura crumble, the administration might find itself forced to enter the Syrian fray.
A senior US official voiced concern that recent rebel gains in the north represent the start of a jihadist surge benefiting al-Nusra and other extremist rebels. But Khoja insists the role of al-Nusra is exaggerated and that by doing nothing Washington will only exacerbate the problem.
Establishing safe zones that are protected by anti-aircraft missiles and regional cooperation “to jam Assad’s air power”, Khoja said, is the “best way to avoid a sudden collapse of the regime that would help chaos and ISIS”.
By establishing safe zones, Khoja argues the opposition can “systematically build its capacity and practice local civic governance” in parallel to the battlefront. The administration, however, appears to be more fixated on the political track and, according to diplomatic sources, has requested a “clear plan on the way forward and the day after Assad in Syria”. Indeed, the Saudis recently invited the Syrian opposition to Riyadh “to map out” the post-Assad period.
Washington wants a clear vis2f3wion of military and political planning in a Syria after Assad, including such issues as the status of minorities, counter-terrorism and preserving an already diminished state infrastructure. Khoja insisted these plans exist and a post-Assad plan is in place.
For him, however, getting to an orderly transition in Syria starts by planning the “day before as well as the day after [Assad]”.
While Khoja does not envision large-scale military action in Syria without the consent of the Obama administration, Hariri is not excluding such a scenario. He points to a new momentum in the region following Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen and insists that “the US will only respect us when we are strong”.
In this scenario, regional states would devise and conduct a battle plan in Syria with expectations that the United States would support it logistically, as it did in Yemen.
But as Obama prepares to complete the Iran nuclear deal in June and embraces his legacy of a “lighter footprint” in the Middle East, and as Syria’s battle lines are being redrawn, it is unlikely that the US administration will weigh in decisively in the conflict. “The war of attrition” in Syria is a distraction for the administration and Obama hopes to leave office in 2017 without becoming one of its proxies — or its problem solver.