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 military.
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 those boundaries.
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 more.
"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.
The 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.
The Times 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 downfall.
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 said.
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.
"The 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, Malley said.
“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."
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