A recent article in the Washington Post has once again spurred speculation about a possible shift in the Obama administration’s Syria policy. Citing a discussion with anonymous administration officials, the paper reported that the US was helping to coordinate an effort by regional allies to supply the Syrian rebels with lethal aid. However, on-the-record comments by administration officials emphasize that U.S. policy remains essentially unchanged, and for once they should be taken at their word.
That there was no major overhaul in US policy was evident from the concluding statement of the G8 summit last week, which urged the regime and the opposition alike to adhere to the failed Kofi Annan plan, “including immediately ceasing all violence so as to enable a Syrian-led, inclusive political transition leading to a democratic, plural political system.” Calling for an end to violence that would lead to a “political process” has long been the hallmark of the administration’s Syria policy.
In contrast, the Post’s story claimed that the Syrian rebels have begun receiving an influx of weaponry in an effort funded mainly by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The US role in this effort, according to the Post, was restricted to “expand[ing] contacts” with some rebel groups in order “to provide the Gulf nations with assessments of rebel credibility and command-and-control infrastructure.”
There is good reason to doubt these claims. For one, the only on-the-record statement in the report was from a senior anonymous State Department official, who essentially refuted the article’s claims and reasserted the administration’s declared position: The US is not funding or supplying the rebels, and is only involved in providing nonlethal assistance to the Syrian opposition.
Furthermore, following the article’s publication, the administration disputed the accuracy of its central claim regarding the US role. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland told reporters that the piece had “stretched its sources,” even referring to it in such strong language as “rumors” and “wild reporting.”
Nuland and White House spokesman Jay Carney did concede that “other countries have made other decisions” and “are pursuing different types of support.” However, Nuland, who was pressed repeatedly on this point, stressed that any assertions about the US coordinating with allies to deliver lethal aid “were unsubstantiated in [the Post’s] report.” What the US was coordinating “broadly” with its allies, she clarified, was “how we can best assure that maximum support goes to the civilian opposition that is preparing itself for a peaceful democratic transition.” This was, in her words, “a loose coordination mechanism.”
Beyond that, the administration’s spokespersons repeated the known official position, which remains the same. Namely, the administration supports the Annan plan, which, as Carney put it, “serves as a foundation for the future political reconciliation that will be required.” In addition, Washington continues to be opposed to “adding fuel to the fire” by providing lethal assistance.
An anonymous official described the dilemma Washington brought on itself by wedding itself to the Annan plan’s engagement policy. The administration, he told CNN.com last week, is “going to be in a bit of a holding pattern for a while, debating on whether [the Annan plan] has succeeded or failed, and whether it was designed to fail.”
In other words, the White House is still unwilling to declare the Annan plan a failure.
Instead, the administration wants to get to the “political reconciliation” part more quickly, and for this it is hoping for support from the Russians. As national security adviser Ben Rhodes remarked following the G8 summit, “It is our assessment that you are not going to be able to solve this problem just with monitors and ceasefires, that you need to have a political process under way… unless you begin the process of a political transition of some sort, you are not going to be able to deal with reducing the violence.”
Rhodes' comments signal a willingness to tolerate acceptable levels of violence while seeking to move on more rapidly to talks. This approach is typical of how engagement with rogue regimes usually unfolds. With the engagers invested in the success of their mission, their reluctance to declare it a failure leads to the watering down of their conditions. This is what happened to former French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, when he sought to engage Damascus in 2007. The longer his engagement effort dragged on, the less he was willing to walk away from it with nothing in hand, and the more he ended up conceding.
Washington’s regional allies no longer have patience for this kind of procrastination. The administration’s acknowledgement that these allies have made “sovereign decisions” to “pursue different types of support” may indicate that these states have pressured the US to lift its previous opposition to them providing the Syrian rebels with lethal aid. However, stuck in its support for the Annan plan and not wanting to be blamed by the Russians for its collapse, the administration finds itself in the awkward position of having to distance itself from the possible efforts of its allies, instead of spearheading them.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.