Following the conclusion of the latest meeting of the Friends of the Syrian People in Istanbul last week, there has been speculation about a possible shift in US policy. However, the confusion that has plagued Washington’s thinking remains, as the administration continues to miss the issue that is confounding its regional allies—Iran. Even after Istanbul, the White House is still willfully blind to the major issue that is driving its allies’ push for decisive action.
This is not without consequences for US standing, as its words ring increasingly hollow with its allies, and its posture, more resembling a spectator than a shaper of dynamics, seems sharply out of sync with the strategic contest with Iran that is playing out in Syria.
Heading into the conference, the Obama administration had made amply clear that it opposed the arming of the opponents of the Assad regime. It’s now old news that regional allies deeply resented this decision. They have become so frustrated with the administration’s dithering that they are not only publicly criticizing its lack of action, but are also now openly ignoring Washington’s preferences.
For example, prior to the Istanbul meeting, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held talks with the Saudis aimed at securing their continued compliance with the US position on military support to the Syrian rebels. “Our main focus is to try and get the guns silenced,” a senior US official said afterward. Clinton told the Saudis that the priority was to forge a ceasefire and to support Annan’s mission. However, in another revealing comment, an unnamed Western diplomat noted what had become rather obvious: “What we are doing is not necessarily to the liking of some regional states.”
Sure enough, the Saudis were not impressed with the US secretary’s appeal. At the conclusion of the Friends of the Syrian People meeting, it was announced that the Gulf Arab states, led by Riyadh, were establishing a fund to pay salaries for the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
The public defiance of the US in itself was remarkable. Moreover, that it has fallen on US allies and clients to threaten concrete measures against the Assad regime speaks volumes about Washington’s lack of leadership. In fact, according to a report in the Kuwaiti al-Rai, some of these Arab states have grown so exasperated with US passivity that they are now coordinating closely with the UK to see what it could do to help the rebels.
The administration’s public messaging following the conference has further compounded its incoherence. When asked about where the US stood on the effort to directly fund the FSA, the State Department spokesperson noted that Washington’s regional allies “are making their own sovereign decisions about what they think is important,” adding that the administration “[has] not discouraged this initiative.”
Of course, the whole point of Clinton’s meeting with the Saudis was precisely to discourage any such initiative. But far from switching tracks, the administration remains stuck in the same frame of mind. What it seems poised to do next is to use the threat of this regional support for the FSA in order to get the Russians to pressure Assad to comply with Annan’s plan. Already, US officials are talking of an “important shift” in the Russian position following Moscow’s public support for an April 10 deadline for Assad to begin implementing the plan.
Needless to say, US and Russian interpretations of Assad’s compliance are bound to differ. What is sure, however, is that the Russians, much like Assad, will point – as indeed they have already – to any assistance to the opposition as a violation of the plan’s terms. But the Obama administration is also likely to cite these stipulations and to call on its regional allies to withhold lethal support for the FSA under the guise of fostering a fragile ceasefire.
Ironically, Washington’s own decision to supply the opposition with non-lethal communications equipment will likely be presented by the Russians and Assad as a breach of the Annan plan. All this underlines the absurdity of the administration’s current policy, whose logical trajectory leads to conforming the US position to that of Assad's backers.
And this is where the growing chasm with US regional allies lies. These states view the Syria crisis in terms of the regional balance of power. Tensions between Iran on the one hand and Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar on the other are becoming more visible every day. The Saudis in particular read the regional context in stark terms. They see the Iranians making moves in Bahrain and Yemen after having secured strong gains in Iraq, as well as an established influence in Lebanon. The last thing they want to see is Iran scoring a victory in Syria through an initiative that keeps Assad in power. Worse still, they saw that Tehran was clearly using the Annan mission to secure a seat at the Syrian negotiating table. Little wonder then that these allies stressed at the Istanbul meeting that the endgame of any initiative should be Assad’s departure from power.
The problem, of course, is that the administration has willfully dug itself into a hole with its support for the Annan plan. By wedding itself to this controversial initiative, Washington has created tensions with its regional allies instead of reassuring them that it is committed to advancing their common strategic interests by any means necessary. After Istanbul, it's clear the US is not there.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.