The White House is unhappy with the options it's been given on Syria and is searching for a new strategy for removing President Bashar al-Assad, The Cable has learned.
"There was a fundamental decision made at the highest level that we need a real Syria policy with more options for the president," one administration official with knowledge of the internal deliberations said. "Our allies were coming back to us and saying ‘What's your next move?,' and we were forced to admit we didn't have one."
The new push includes adjustments in personnel handling the portfolio. Before March, National Security Council Director Steve Simon headed up the internal interagency process. Now, multiple officials confirm that NSC Senior Director for Strategy Derek Chollet has been added to the leadership of the Syria policy team and has been coordinating the interagency process for several weeks. Simon, Assistant Secretary of State Jeff Feltman, State Dept. Special Advisor Fred Hof, and Ambassador Robert Ford are still very active on the Syria portfolio.
Simon, Feltman, and Hof have been traveling all week and will be with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Paris Thursday. There she will attend an ad-hoc meeting of foreign ministers where "core" members of the Friends of Syria group will confer on next steps.
Chollet, the former deputy to Anne-Marie Slaughter at the State Department's Policy Planning shop, has also been nominated to be the next assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, replacing Sandy Vershbow, who is now deputy secretary general of NATO. Chollet has taken on the day-to-day management of the interagency process while he awaits confirmation.
New options are now being considered internally, including another discussion of setting up buffer zones inside Syria, one administration official confirmed. The administration has also authorized direct contact with the internal Syrian opposition, including the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and at least one State Department official has met with the FSA's nominal leaders in Turkey.
The rethink comes eight months after Obama explicitly demanded the Syrian leader's removal, saying, "The time has come for President Assad to step aside."
His administration is still struggling to come up with a way to make that call a reality.
There's a growing consensus inside the administration that the violence in Syria is not abating and that multinational diplomatic initiatives such as the plan put forth by U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan are not convincing Assad to enter into a political process to transition to democracy, much less yield power and step down.
Clinton hinted Wednesday that fresh options are under discussion.
"We are at a crucial turning point," Clinton said, speaking from Brussels. "Either we succeed in pushing forward with Kofi Annan's plan in accordance with the Security Council direction, with the help of monitors steadily broadening and deepening a zone of non-conflict and peace, or we see Assad squandering his last chance before additional measures have to be considered."
The potential shift in U.S. policy predates the Annan plan, however.
Following a failed effort to convince Russia and China to endorse a resolution condemning Assad in February and the subsequent attempts to convince Russia to play a more constructive role following Vladimir Putin's election to the presidency in March, top levels of the Obama administration began exploring other options, according to multiple U.S. officials, congressional officials, and experts briefed on the discussions.
One administration official said that the hope that Russia could be convinced to reign in Assad has now faded, as has the notion that Turkey and the Arab Gulf states would be willing to bankroll the Syrian opposition and even arm the FSA while the United States largely confined itself to a diplomatic role.
The administration's position had been to look the other way while Arab states armed the Syrian opposition, but pledges of aid by Gulf states have not materialized and the Turkish government, which has committed to an anti-Assad position and is hosting the FSA, is waiting for the United States to chart a clear way forward.
"They are not thinking two steps ahead. That's why there is a demand for a plan B," the administration official said, referring to the White House. "The position they took at the last Friends of Syria meeting is not sustainable."
The United States has pledged $25 million in humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people and communications equipment to the internal opposition. But lawmakers who met with internal opposition leaders last week said that they hadn't gotten that assistance.
"The most stunning, unsettling conclusion I drew from the leaders of the Free Syrian Army was that they have essentially got no help from anyone. They are literally running out of ammunition while Assad's forces are being resupplied by Iran and Russia," Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) told The Cable in an interview.
Lieberman and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) spent their Senate recess on the Turkish side of the Turkey-Syria border, meeting with Turkish officials, FSA leaders, and refugees.
"What they want us to do is to lead. They want us to lead the Friends of Syria, who have given them increasingly sympathetic rhetoric but not the wherewithal to defend themselves," he said.
The Syrian internal opposition is buying weapons and ammunition on the black market at exorbitant prices and claims that large parts of the Syrian military are demoralized but are unwilling to break with the government until they see the opposition has real international support.
"They are all waiting for the U.S. to say ‘We're in this,'" Lieberman said.
There was at least one State Department official inside the McCain-Lieberman meeting with leaders of the FSA, Gen. Mustafa al-Sheikh and Col. Riad al-Asaad, two U.S. officials confirmed. The FSA leaders asked the United States to provide RPGs, anti-aircraft guns, and ammunition. The FSA leaders also said they have proof that the Assad regime is using helicopter gunships to attack civilians in the city of Idlib, as apparently shown in this YouTube video.
Turkish officials told McCain and Lieberman that they were willing to let weapons flow over their borders and consider other more aggressive steps to help the internal Syrian opposition, but that they won't do so unless Washington leads the way.
The Turks told the senators there are currently 25,000 registered Syrian refugees in southern Turkey, although the registrations have not kept pace with the flow of refugees across the border so the actual number could be much higher. The Turks also said that if the refugee total tops 50,000, they will require help.
"They Turks want American leadership and they know American leadership is totally absent. The Turks say they may -- if this flood of refugees continues -- they may need international assistance," McCain said. "Every place we talked to, they want American leadership. It's just disgraceful that they haven't acted so far."
The administration official explained that the White House does not want to become so heavily involved in the Syria conflict, for example by directly arming opposition fighters, because it puts the United States on the hook for their success and would probably require increased levels of commitment as the conflict drags on.
"They've got this half-pregnant position that is offensive to the sensibilities of the people on the ground and confusing to the Turks," the official said.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.