WASHINGTON — On Aug. 18 last year, President Barack Obama issued a statement that for the first time demanded that Syrian leader Bashar Assad step aside. Similarly worded statements came from Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the European Union that same day.
Nearly a year and thousands of deaths later, U.S. policy on Syria’s crisis remains an enigma.
American officials refuse to acknowledge openly that they support the rebels, but they provide the fighters with nonlethal aid and look the other way as U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf send them weapons and ammunition.
Washington publicly promotes the “progress” of nonviolent opposition leaders toward organizing themselves, but so far it hasn’t formally recognized any bloc as an alternative to Assad because the dissidents, beset by internal feuding, have failed to form a potential government-in-waiting.
U.S. decision-makers still talk about a peaceful resolution, though the notion seems quaint as both sides dig in for a protracted civil war that has lured Islamist extremists from throughout the region and sent the death toll to 20,000 or more.
Washington’s grim choices and lukewarm support for the rebels seem light-years away from the Obama administration’s early cheerleading of the uprising, which began 17 months ago as a challenge to the Assad dynasty’s 40 years of authoritarian rule.
Seemingly out of good options, the best the Obama administration can hope for, according to analysts closely monitoring the crisis, is that the ragtag rebels can finish the job rather than force a risky U.S. intervention — which the government is loath to do, especially with a presidential election looming.
“There’s no U.S. strategy on Syria. They had this strategy of diplomacy combined with economy, but when it failed, they didn’t develop anything to replace it. And when the elections started approaching, they suspended everything,” said Mohammad Abdallah, a former Syrian opposition spokesman who heads the Syria Justice and Accountability Center, a partly U.S.-funded center in Washington to document atrocities.
The current U.S. position, Abdallah said, is: “Our hearts are with you, but we wish we could go to sleep and wake up to find Assad gone.”
With no breakthroughs expected on the diplomatic front, the administration continues to roll out sanctions against Assad and his allies. A new round was announced Friday against Sytrol, Syria’s state-run oil company, alleging that it had supplied gasoline to Iran, and against the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah on charges that it had provided training and logistical support to Assad’s regime. The Syrian regime and Hezbollah, which is on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations, already are so isolated internationally that it’s unclear what, if any, punitive effect such measures would carry.
There was little for rebels to celebrate Friday on the battlefield, either. In Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city, the rebels reportedly have run low on ammunition and had pulled out of key areas they had sought to control, including the city’s landmark Citadel, a U.N.-recognized world heritage site that has been badly damaged in the fighting. Syria’s state news agency SANA boasted that the government had beat back an attempt by “mercenary terrorists” — the regime’s label for rebels — to capture the airport. A dozen people died when a shell struck a bakery where they were waiting to buy bread.
While nobody is calling for foreign boots on Syrian soil, the rebels have asked for heavy weapons for months, especially surface-to-air missiles now that Assad’s forces are pounding rebel positions with jets and helicopter gunships.
That prospect seems more distant than ever as the U.S. grapples with the fact that jihadist elements have entered the fight, and the bloodied opposition forces are so desperate that they will accept any volunteers in the lopsided battle against the regime.
The civil war already is seeping across Syria’s borders, through a worsening refugee crisis, an influx of foreign fighters and the inflammation of sectarian tensions that are rapidly turning the conflict into a proxy war between Sunni Muslim Arab bulwarks such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar and the Shiite Muslim theocracy in Iran and its allies in Iraq and Lebanon.
The Obama administration has “not taken any option off the table when it comes to Syria,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Friday.
Yet the administration is so visibly nervous now that it won’t even formally acknowledge its support of the rebel movement, despite the tacit agreement for Persian Gulf nations to arm the guerrillas, senior officials’ public touting of rebel advances and a U.S. Treasury license issued last month that allows a Washington-based support group to collect funds from U.S .residents for the rebel Free Syrian Army, money that the group says will go for arms and equipment.
When asked point-blank this week whether the United States supports the rebel movement, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell fumbled through platitudes with four references to a “peaceful” transition. At no point did he give an answer to what had been a yes-or-no question.
“Is the United States supporting the rebels? We are being very careful and judicious in supporting the Syrian opposition,” another State Department official said later, speaking only on the condition of anonymity per diplomatic protocol. “The entrance of extremist elements into the conflict is a deeply troubling variable. That is a genuine concern that the United States has. While we support the aspirations of the Syrian people, we should be very cautious.”
Leila Hilal, a Syrian-American who heads the Middle East Task Force for the New America Foundation, a Washington research center, said the Obama administration now had little choice but to hope that the armed insurgency was successful. The nonviolent opposition, headquartered in Turkey, has little influence over the situation.
“Everyone is banking on the insurgency, and U.S. policy is geared toward enabling that insurgency,” Hilal said.
“The Obama administration’s policy is very much about thinking that the regime is going to fall and collapse on its own,” she added. “The armed insurgency is having an impact and (the Americans) are providing nonlethal support, but to me the question is: Are they just fueling the civil war?”
Lesley Clark contributed to this report.