Up until this week, the Obama administration had maintained an unequivocal posture against providing assistance to the armed Syrian opposition. To justify its position, the administration repeatedly cautioned that such assistance would only be “pouring fuel” on the fire, or would risk aiding extremists. There now seems to be a belated, if painstakingly slow and incomplete, shift underway in the administration’s Syria policy as pressure mounts over exploring military options.
Still, the small shift only underscores the extreme disinclination of this administration to lead on Syria. This reluctance continues to mar the policy with incoherence and contradictory public statements.
On Tuesday, Josh Rogin at ForeignPolicy.com reported that Washington was “moving to provide direct assistance to the internal opposition in Syria.” One administration official who spoke to Rogin said, “US policy is now aligned with enabling the opposition to overthrow the Assad regime. This codifies a significant change in our Syria policy.”
One could ask why it took so long for the policy to be aligned with enabling the overthrow of Assad, but perhaps it’s better late than never. In any case, this assistance remains only non-lethal, consisting of communications equipment and humanitarian aid. If that was the extent of it, then there’s not much of a change to speak of in the policy.
In fact, for now, the administration continues to shy away from providing direct lethal assistance to the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA). “There is recognition that lethal assistance to the opposition may be necessary, but not at this time,” the administration official told Rogin.
Instead, the administration prefers to have its regional allies take the lead on this front, while it remains out of that particular picture. “The decision has been made at the next Friends of Syria meeting to not oppose any proposals to arm the FSA… We’re not going to publicly or privately tell the Friends of Syria not to do this,” the official said.
This is where the change purportedly lies. For up until now, the administration had aggressively fought the proposition of arming the FSA. Administration officials have publicly stated that “more arms into Syria is not the answer,” and asserted that “now is not the time to further militarize the situation in Syria.” During a hearing last week, Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman similarly expressed hesitance “about pouring fuel onto a conflagration that Assad himself has set.”
The administration aggressively peddled the notion that such lethal assistance could find its way into the hands of al-Qaeda operatives in Syria. The most controversial articulation of this position came from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a set of interviews she gave in Tunisia. “[T]o whom are you delivering [the arms]?” Clinton asked. “We know al-Qaeda. Zawahiri is supporting the opposition in Syria. Are we supporting al-Qaeda in Syria?”
The secretary’s unfortunate remarks elicited the outrage of Senator John McCain, who has since repeatedly challenged the administration on this claim. Accordingly, during the course of another hearing yesterday, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta apparently started to walk back Secretary Clinton’s comments: “We’re not suggesting that that part of al-Qaeda that has made its way to Syria has aligned itself or is in bed with the opposition, but they’re there trying to exploit it.”
Perhaps the administration’s decision to backtrack on Clinton’s ill-advised remarks is in keeping with the subtle shift in the policy: The US will no longer stand in the way of regional allies arming the FSA, and may even be encouraging it.
But if the administration is indeed concerned about where the lethal assistance will end up, why is it opting to step aside, and allowing others, presumably states like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, to run the process of arms deliveries into Syria? Common sense suggests that such worries ought to push the administration to supervise closely and directly such a process instead of leaving it in the hands of actors whose aptitude and capabilities are considerably less than those of the US.
There are already suggestions that the administration does intend to play a more direct role, only behind the scenes. For instance, during the same hearing with Secretary Panetta, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey suggested that there was “consultation,” but “not planning,” taking place between the US and other countries in the region on their role in any potential military action.
The bottom line, however, is that the administration’s impulse to not want to lead on Syria has translated into a chaotic explanation of its need to adapt to the escalating dynamics of the Syrian crisis – a disarray manifest in the wildly divergent assessments and inconsistent messaging by administration officials.
But the buck stops with the president. President Obama may prefer to avoid the Syrian headache in the run-up to his reelection campaign. However, events are overtaking his priorities. Saying that Assad’s fall is inevitable is merely another way of avoiding direct US involvement. Congress is now grilling the administration on precisely this point.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.