As President Barack Obama enters his second term, Syria has become the most urgent test of his foreign policy leadership and style.
If Obama finally takes ownership of the effort to unseat Bashar al-Assad (which would not require U.S. troops or planes), there’s still a chance of preventing a Syrian implosion. If the administration leads from in front, it may be possible to head off a strategic disaster that would endanger Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Israel.
Yet early signs indicate that Obama will continue the muddled Syria policy of his first term, while continuing to lead from way, way behind.
The administration has long called for Assad’s ouster, but has not really pursued it. It has chased a diplomatic option, even though Assad’s main ally, Moscow, won’t dump him until it believes he is virtually defeated. As for sending Patriot missile batteries to Turkey, that has symbolic value, but it won’t affect the situation on the ground in Syria.
Washington has outsourced the arming of rebel groups to Gulf states that prefer Islamist fighters. Meantime, the United States won’t help arm secular and moderate rebel commanders. So do we want Assad gone or don’t we? Do we want an Islamist Syria or don’t we?
This lack of clarity haunts U.S. policy even after the election. Last week, the United States, with European and Arab allies, recognized a new Syrian civilian opposition council that it had helped godfather. The hope is that this group will provide a means to funnel more humanitarian aid into Syria.
However, U.S. policymakers still insist this new civilian group – not the rebel fighters – is the key to overthrowing Assad. The new council supposedly will be able to convince Assad’s Alawite sect and other minorities that they can safely abandon their support for the regime. U.S. officials also hope the council will be able to assert civilian control over rebel fighters.
Such hopes are badly misplaced. Civilians alone cannot determine the Syrian endgame. Unless Obama’s policy becomes more robust, the Syrian conflict will spiral out of control.
The arguments for not arming the rebels are long outdated. If we were concerned weapons might fall into the wrong hands, we should have put more resources into vetting rebel commanders.
Even now, there is plenty of information about key Syrian rebel commanders who are secular or moderate Muslims to whom weapons could be directed. But they are skeptical at best, and hostile at worst, about U.S. intentions.
The Saudis were handed control of a major meeting of Free Syrian Army commanders last week in Turkey with the goal of setting up a unified command. Early reports say the command includes many with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists. Why should we be surprised?
Perhaps the strongest indicator of a policy muddle was last week’s designation of the Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organization. True, the group has some al-Qaida links. But it has waged and won some of the toughest battles against Assad’s forces, which is why most rebel commanders oppose the U.S. designation.
If the United States were arming non-Islamist rebels, they wouldn’t need Jabhat al-Nusra’s help. If the administration weren’t outsourcing to the Saudis and Qataris, non-Islamist fighters would be in a stronger position.
Instead, U.S. officials have sowed confusion over whom they support. They have undermined secular fighters and given a boost to those with beards. And they have confused our friends and opponents as to our aims, making a negotiated settlement less likely as neither Moscow nor Tehran thinks we are serious about ousting Assad. The Syrian dictator probably doesn’t think so, either, which will encourage him to try to hold on in Damascus.
The longer this conflict lasts, and the stronger the Islamists become, the more likely it is that sectarian war will spill over Syria’s borders. The only chance of preventing that is to speed up the endgame. That would require Obama to convince all parties, friend and foe, that he wants Assad gone.
Rhetoric will be no substitute for concrete actions. The time remaining is short.Trudy Rubin, a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.