The Cable

Inside the Obama team’s “shift” on Syria

The Obama administration is preparing a wide range of new actions to condemn the Syrian government's brutal violence against protesters. However, U.S. officials still remain skeptical that they have the leverage to significantly affect the unfolding crisis in the country.

For the first three weeks of the protests in Syria, which first broke out on March 15, the Obama administration debated internally how to react to while generally proceeding cautiously in public. Occupied with the Libya war and skeptical that Syria would reach the current level of unrest, the administration's policy was to issue carefully worded statements condemning the violence while encouraging Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to pursue reform and reconciliation.

Two weeks ago, however, the mood inside the administration changed in response to Assad's brutal crackdown and the realization that he was not listening to pro-reform voices from inside or outside Syria. After a series of deliberations, culminating in a Deputies Committee meeting at the National Security Council last week, a new policy course was set. In the coming days, expect a new executive order on Syria, a draft presidential statement at the U.N. Security Council, new designations of Syrian officials as targets of sanctions, and a firmer tone on the violence that will include references to Iran's unhelpful influence on Syria's crackdown.

The new sanctions will not target Assad directly and there will be no call for him to go.

"The days of just making statements are over and we are at a turning point," said Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "What that turning point leads to we don't know yet."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came under criticism for her March 27 statement, "Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe [Assad]'s a reformer."

But based on the information at the time, most inside the administration didn't feel she had said anything wrong.  Multiple administration officials told The Cable that the administration had simply concluded, incorrectly, that the Syrian crisis would never grow this serious. That judgment informed their go-slow approach in responding to the protests.

But one month later, as the protest movement has gained strength and spread to cities throughout Syria, nobody inside the Obama administration is saying that now.

"A lot of people were wrong. The general assessment [inside the administration] was that this wouldn't happen, that Assad was too good at nipping these movements in the bud and also that he was not afraid to be brutal," one administration official said. "All of these things combined made this more of a surprise and made it much harder to deal with."

For the first three weeks of the protests, the analysts told the policy makers that it was unclear whether the opposition had wide support throughout the country and whether the protest movement would be able to sustain itself and grow.

"Then, gradually, every day we saw the protests get larger, and we realized this is going to get worse and that [Assad] wasn't going to listen to anyone else," the official said, explaining the administration's recent stream of increasingly harsh condemnations of the Syrian government's actions. "It was a reaction to the events on the ground."

The Obama administration has always been divided between those who prioritized efforts to convince Assad to break with Iran, those who wanted to concentrate on Syrian-Israeli negotiations (sometimes known as the "peace process junkies"), and those who believed that Assad would always be a ruthless and anti-Western dictator, and should be treated as such.

As the violence in Syria escalated, different parts of the administration pushed for different courses of action. At the Treasury Department, for example, sanctions experts were pushing for targeted and specific measures that could put financial pressure on the Syrian government. These measures are the fastest options to deploy, and also the easiest, because they don't require Congressional buy-in.

At the State Department, the bureau of Near Eastern Affairs was also pressing for quicker decision making, multiple administration sources said. U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, in search of clear guidance for his discussions with the Assad regime, was pushing for specifics on U.S. demands and what pressures might be forthcoming should Syria not comply.

However, a push for aggressive action wasn't necessarily the State Department's position at the end of the day. Multiple sources said that, when the Syria discussions reached the deputies or principals level, State was often viewed as taking a cautious line, not wanting to give U.S. critics ammunition to claim the protests were driven by the West. Meanwhile, the NSC staff was asking what leverage the United States has over Syria, and what exact steps it wanted the Syrian government to take.

The view inside the administration is that Syria is a particularly complicated problem because the United States does not have good relationships with either the government or the opposition and lacks the leverage to affect events in the country.

"The people inside the administration who have been trying to craft a systematic narrative as to how the U.S. is responding to the Arab spring, they would like to see a more forceful response, but they are right to be cautious because it's very unclear exactly how widespread the support for the protests really are," said George Washington University professor Marc Lynch.

The administration now has no choice but to increase its involvement, but it will continue to be mindful that U.S. pressure, even with international support, has limited influence.

"Once Assad decided to use brutal force, it really forced their hand. But we still don't have a lot of leverage," Lynch said.

JOSEPH BARRAK/AFP/Getty Images

The Cable

Will the new Burma envoy make a difference?

The Obama administration is appointing the first-ever U.S. special envoy to Burma, but the potential absence of any significant change in U.S. policy toward the country calls into question whether he will be able to produce an improvement in the brutal Burmese regime's behavior.

President Barack Obama appointed Pentagon official and Asia hand Derek Mitchell to the post of Burma Special Envoy on April 14, about 18 months after the State Department rolled out its new Burma policy, which was meant to mix limited engagement with the prospect of additional pressures. But the junta simply continued its long record of attacking ethnic minorities, suppressing political dissent, and rigging elections. Following what the State Department called the "fatally flawed" elections in Burma last November, the engagement has trailed off.

A top State Department official said today that the Obama administration is not contemplating any change in its Burma policy, despite the fact that its current strategy hasn't yielded positive results.

"We will acknowledge that we've had either no or limited success, and this has been going on for a while," said Joe Yun, deputy assistant secretary of State in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. "But we do believe ultimately is that the system there in Burma is not sustainable and that we will try to improve it, we will try to change it, and we will try to bring democracy there, justice, and respect for human rights."

Asked by The Cable whether Mitchell's appointment would be accompanied by a review of Burma policy or if Mitchell will simply be adding some high-level attention to the current policy, Yun said it would probably be the latter.

"We'll have to see once he gets on board, but at this moment there is no thinking going on that we will change our policy that was announced 18 months ago," said Yun, "I think it is high-level attention, at the end of the day, that will have results."

Yun was speaking as part of a panel discussion following a State Department screening of "Burma Soldier," a documentary starring Colin Farrell that tells the story of a former political prisoner who went from being a solder in Burma's army to a pro-democracy activist. Yun was joined on the panel by Assistant Secretary Eric Schwartz, the film's subject Myo Myint, film producer Julie LeBrocquy, and Office of War Crimes Issues Deputy Diane Orentlicher.

Yun explained that the "carrots" in the current policy include the prospect of international recognition, a lifting of sanctions, and increased foreign investment for Burma. He didn't detail what "sticks" were being threatened. He also said there is no consensus among the Burmese leadership that there is something for them to gain from engaging the United States in the first place.

Aung Din, the executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, told The Cable that Mitchell's appointment could make a difference, even without a change in the overall policy.

"We believe this is very significant, because even though [Assistant Secretary] Kurt Campbell and Joseph Yun are handling Burma, Campbell is handling 32 countries and Yun is handling 10 countries, so I don't think they have so much time to concentrate on Burma," he said. "When we have the special envoy he will coordinate with the U.S. bureaucracies and with the other countries, and will try to concentrate on Burma on a daily basis."

Schwartz was optimistic but not specific in his prediction that positive change in Burma was in the offing. "One never knows exactly how political change takes place," he said. "And if there's anything we've learned over the past decades... is that it's very difficult indefinitely to suppress the basic will and desire of people to chart their own futures."

Myint asked the assembled crowd to focus on the freeing of political prisoners and to help the over 100,000 refugees and internally displaced people along the Thai-Burmese border.

"We hope there will be political change, but the military regime has changed everything except politics. They changed military uniform to civilian clothes, they changed city names, but not politics. So without changing politics inside Burma, the political situation is the same before the elections and after the elections," he said.

STR/AFP/Getty Images