BEIRUT

Middle East

Obama urged to step in before it’s ‘too late’

Still no consensus on direct supplies of weapons to rebel fighters.

BEIRUT: Calls to “reassess and engage” in the Syria crisis are among the pieces of public advice that have been offered recently to President Barack Obama by American experts, along with the dire warning, “Is it too late?”

Obama, who is now beginning a second term free from the burden of a re-election campaign, has been criticized for not acting more forcefully during the early stages of the popular uprising and military insurrection that have unfolded since March 2011, and have claimed an estimated 60,000 lives according to the United Nations.

The Brookings Institution’s Michael Doran and Salman Shaikh this week published an open letter to Obama, warning that Syria was “standing on a precipice reminiscent of Iraq in early 2006.”

Like the U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, the two experts raise the specter of Syria becoming a second Somalia, but one that is “in the heartland of the Middle East, and on the borders of Israel, Turkey and Jordan, the three closest regional allies of the United States.”

Doran and Shaikh advised Obama to do what many would consider to be politically costly in domestic terms, namely “provide lethal assistance to the Syrian opposition” and “engage directly” with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

While the rebels have gained access to a variety of weaponry, the supplies have usually come via American allies and purchases on the black market.

Rebel fighters have complained that the quantities are insufficient or unfairly distributed, and in recent months the rebels have resorted to arming themselves, by capturing the regime’s own stockpiles of arms.

Many analysts have pointed out that Obama’s largely passive policy on Syria is explainable because there is no international consensus on how to intervene in the Syrian crisis, and no enthusiasm by the U.S. public for a greater role for Washington.

Doran and Shaikh said direct military intervention by the U.S. isn’t necessary – but added that “removing the threat of intervention entirely only emboldens Assad and his chief patron, Iran.” They said Obama should inform Assad and his allies that the U.S. and its regional and western partners are willing to intervene to establish a no-fly zone, because they believe “this would hasten Assad’s demise, hearten the opposition, and significantly enhance American credibility in the region.”

In their article, they ignored the role of Turkey and its possible reaction to seeing a no-fly zone emerge on its border with Syria, as opposed to the stationing of Patriot missile batteries to be used in self-defense.

They also played down the effectiveness of the opposition National Coalition, formed in November of last year, because its influence has been limited by the growing power of warlords inside Syria, and the NC’s “failure to reach a national consensus.” They refer to the body as “an exclusively Sunni club” which by definition generates little enthusiasm among Syria’s other sectarian communities.

Doran and Shaikh firmly support arming the FSA because “a continuation of the current, hands-off policy will only make Al-Qaeda stronger and the conflicts within the FSA more permanent. As daunting as the challenges in Syria are today, if the United States does nothing, it will face even more virulent problems tomorrow.”

“Like it or not, the FSA (Free Syrian Army) is the nucleus of the post-Assad military, which will be the most significant institution of the Syrian state,” they write, advising more robust action by the U.S. in helping encourage the rebels to organize their ranks and develop a country-wide military strategy.

They conclude by advising the establishment of an International Steering Group for Syria, to include Russia, China, Turkey and key Arab and European states, while leaving out Iran.

It might be difficult to convince Putin to drop his demand that Assad play a role in a political transition process, but they state that “avoidance of active involvement [was] an attractive option. But developments since have made it an increasingly dangerous option for American interests; it’s time for a reassessment.”

Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote this week a “Syria Strategy for Obama,” also stressing the need to arm the rebels, and echoing a warning of Doran and Shaikh that U.S. popularity was in decline among the opposition.

“Washington has refused to fulfill the opposition’s request for more and better weapons that would help it end the regime’s onslaught, sowing anti-American sentiment that is being increasingly harvested by Islamic extremists and Al-Qaeda affiliates,” said Tabler, who enjoys good access to policy-makers in Washington.

Tabler also supports a no-fly zone in order to create safe areas on the ground, and he stresses the need to “secure,” i.e. take control of, Syria’s chemical weapons so that they do not fall into the hands of non-state actors.

But Frederic Hof, writing in the Atlantic Council, appears much less confident about the future of Syria, after having served as the Obama administration’s “special adviser for transition in Syria” at the State Department.

Hof said that even if one agrees with the title of his article “Syria: Is it too late?” – this doesn’t mean that American shouldn’t consider acting.

But Hof’s article does contain several instances of dramatic overstating of the situation in Syria. He says that “the last vestige of peaceful protest has long since been killed by regime terror,” which ignores the fact that Friday demonstrations take place in a few hundred locations every weekly basis around the country.

The regime also recently released several hundred prisoners in exchange for 48 Iranian nationals, and many of those released were civilian activists.

Hof mentioned that he earlier encouraged Syria’s opposition to form a provisional government, but acknowledged that Washington’s clout has limits, even if it announces its support for a new policy initiative.

Hof went on to say he was contacted by a prominent opposition figure, who told him that “the appetite for a provisional government was being dampened by the fear of insufficient material support from the West, a deficit that would cause its rapid failure and permanent loss of credibility, all for the benefit of Assad.”

The calls for a more robust stance by the White House have been supported by the veteran Republican Senator John McCain, but conservatives in the U.S. have been of two minds on Syria.

An article last month in The New Republic was entitled “Please Mr. President: Don’t intervene in Syria.”

A number of commentators and analysts have said the White House and the military establishment are focused on becoming less entangled in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, meaning little appetite for an activist policy on Syria.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 19, 2013, on page 10.

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