The Obama administration very publicly signaled a
shift in its approach to dealing with the Syria crisis after negotiations broke
down at the United Nations in mid-July.
But the actual details of that shift are still being
debated internally and the administration's rhetoric has gotten out ahead of
its policy, according to officials, experts, and lawmakers.
Those details are being discussed among a select
group of top officials in a closed process managed by National Security Advisor
Tom Donilon, multiple sources told The Cable. Within that group, some
officials are arguing for more direct aid to the internal Syrian opposition,
including the Free Syrian Army, that would help them better fight the Syrian
Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford is pushing for such stepped-up measures and his team at
the State Department is maintaining close contact with internal opposition
groups, multiple administration sources said, including in meetings with
opposition leaders this week in Cairo.
Other top officials at State, including Deputy
Secretary of State Bill Burns and Senior Advisor Fred Hof, are
focusing more on developing diplomatic
strategies with the external opposition and regional players such as Turkey.
At the Pentagon, the Syria and Israel teams have
been working overtime to plan against contingencies and tackle the challenge of
tracking Assad's chemical weapons and potentially responding to an instance of
their use. The Washington Examiner reported July 21 that the Pentagon has
set up a "Crisis Asset Team" to prepare for the regime's collapse and officials
told The Cable that the Joint Chiefs
of Staff is preparing worst-case scenario planning.
All this activity is taking place within guidelines
handed down from the White House regarding the limits of what U.S. agencies can
do inside Syria.
Two administration sources confirmed that the
president has issued a finding allowing non-lethal assistance to non-violent
groups inside Syria, which opens the door to more communications and
intelligence help for the local councils, but closes the door on the idea of
providing the Free Syrian Army with direct arms, military training, or other
deadly assistance. It also closes the door on the idea of providing safe havens
inside Syria using U.S. assets.
The White House wants to try to limit U.S.
involvement in the crisis before the election, these administration sources
said, in what one official said amounts to a "political lid," and the agencies
are trying to come up with strategies to increase pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad within
The CIA, for instance, is reportedly aiding in the
flow of arms from Gulf countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia by helping to vet
arms recipients, as allowed by the non-lethal finding. The Washington Post's David Ignatius also reported that the
finding allows the CIA to help the rebels with "command and control."
But some inside the administration are pushing for
"We're helping the rebels just enough to survive and
maintain a level of momentum but not enough for them to combat the regime writ
large," one U.S. official told The Cable.
end of diplomacy
On July 19, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice declared that the Security Council "utterly failed" and that the United
States would begin to work "with a diverse range of partners outside the
Security Council" to pressure the Assad regime and increase aid to the Syria
people. A front-page story July 22 in the New York Times subsequently reported
that the administration had decided to abandon its quest for a new Security
Council resolution instead boosting its direct aid to the internal Syrian
opposition and focusing on strategies to "forcibly bring down" the Assad regime.
reported that the White House was holding daily, high-level meetings focused on
how to "manage a Syrian government collapse," but administration officials have
been reticent to describe exactly how they intend to bring about Assad's
When pressed on the issue on July
24, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
would not say if the United States would start providing the Syrian rebels increased
assistance such as battlefield intelligence or logistical support.
"We are certainly providing communications that we
know is going to people within Syria so that they can be better organized to
protect themselves against the continuing assault of their own government," she
On Tuesday, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell also declined to
specify any new initiatives to aid the internal Syria opposition when pressed
repeatedly to identify the elements of the administration's new approach.
"We said from the day of that U.N. vote onward, we
would accelerate every other part of our strategy and continue to work to get [Assad]
to step aside so that this violence can stop. So all elements of that -- as
I mentioned, these four tracks that include the accountability track, the
support to the opposition, the humanitarian track, all of these have continued
apace," he said.
next big leap"
The administration's shift in approach is more of a
quantitative increase in the types of aid the U.S. was already providing,
rather than a qualitative change that would see new categories of U.S.
assistance inside Syria, analysts said.
"Thus far it's a creeping policy.
It's now getting closer to giving lethal assistance to the internal opposition
but still short of that. That would be the next big leap," said Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the
Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Tabler warned that the
administration's caution risks alienating the rebels.
"A non-lethal finding means that you
can find out what's going on with these groups and help them but you can't do
anything to actively help them overthrow the regime," he said. "But it's the
guys with the guns who are going to control things on the ground, so you need
to affect those groups, and that's hard to do that if you're not helping them
and if they are angry that we didn't help them in their hour of need."
There are some signs that the
administration is taking steps to aid the rebels indirectly. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets
Control has issued a license for the Syrian Support Group, a Washington-based
opposition group, to send money to the internal Syrian opposition
Rob Malley, Middle East director at the
International Crisis Group, cautioned that there is still no appetite at the
top levels of the administration for crossing the line into lethal assistance, even
though the administration is happy to let others arms the rebels.
"It would be a greater sense of responsibility if
U.S. weapons were in the wrong hands," he said. "It may be a distinction
without a difference, but one that they are holding on to."
What the Syrian rebels really want are anti-aircraft
weapons like Stinger missiles, but those are exactly the weapons the
administration doesn't want to provide, said Malley. NBC's Richard Engel
reported Tuesday that rebels in Aleppo had acquired a small shipment of MANPADS from Turkey.
The lack of direct U.S. support is creating a
perception among the armed rebels that the United States is not on their side,
“It’s certainly a perception among the Syrian people and the
opposition that the U.S. and the West are content too see a weakened Syria
without the regime being overthrown. The perception is almost iraguably false, yet the feeling is growing inside Syria that that’s an outcome that the west
can live with,” he said. “For some in the Arab world Syria will be another
argument in the case that American hasn’t done enough.”
That issue is at the heart of the argument made by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who said in a
statement July 27
that the U.S. should be providing weapons, intelligence, and training to the
Free Syria Army.
"Years from now, the Syrian people
will remember that -- in their hour of desperation, when they looked to the
world for help -- the United States stood idly by as brave Syrians struggled
and died for their freedom in a grossly unfair fight," the senators wrote.
"If we continue on this path of
inaction, a mass atrocity will surely unfold in Aleppo, or elsewhere in Syria.
We have the power to prevent this needless death and advance our strategic
interests in the Middle East at the same time. If we do not, it will be a
shameful failure of leadership that will haunt us for a long time to come."