The administration of President Barack Obama has often been ridiculed for what it describes as “leading from behind.” More often than not this has been an excuse for not leading at all, and nowhere has American vacillation been more on display than in Syria.
For instance, it is the United States that has lent credence to accusations by the Syrian regime that Al-Qaeda is assisting the Syrian opposition. Last week, the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he believed Al-Qaeda in Iraq had infiltrated Syrian opposition groups, and was behind bombings in Damascus and Aleppo. Clapper needn’t have made that statement publicly. Not surprisingly, the Syrian opposition read it as a sign of American hostility toward its aspirations.
Politically as well, Washington has been all over the place. In an interview with France 24 just over a week ago, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, said that the Obama administration was looking for a “peaceful political solution” in Syria. “Even the Syrian people do not want a military solution to this crisis,” he said, before adding: “We believe [President Bashar] Assad should step down, but at the end of the day the Syrian people will make the decision, not the U.S.”
A few days later, Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, sounded less affirmative. While also defending a political solution, she observed, “[I]f we can’t get Assad to yield to the pressure that we are all bringing to bear, we may have to consider additional measures.” To many people this suggested that the U.S. might possibly endorse arming Syria’s opposition if that became necessary. Evidently, the Obama administration – amid the carnage in Homs and elsewhere in Syria, and rising calls in the Arab world and even in the U.S. Congress for Assad’s opponents to be supplied with better weapons – feared that it would fall behind the policy curve.
There are no easy answers in Syria, but Washington’s trouble is that it has no strategy for the country. This is proving very damaging indeed, given that the Russians and Iranians do have one, and it can be summarized quite simply: Actively support the repression by the Syrian army and security services, bringing the opposition, or a portion of the opposition, to the negotiating table. Introduce reforms, albeit cosmetic reforms, to return the political initiative to Assad. Integrate willing opposition figures into a national unity government, thereby neutralizing the discontent on the ground. And give the regime the latitude to govern again, in order to snuff out pockets of dissent.
This scheme is unlikely to work, but at least it is straightforward. Moscow and Tehran have dispatched military and intelligence units to Syria to impose their will. There are reports that the U.S. has also sent people into Syria to organize the Syrian opposition, but apparently in numbers so infinitesimal as to be virtually useless.
But what did Ford mean when mentioning a peaceful political solution? The Russians and the Iranians also want such a solution, however the Obama administration has opposed Russia’s approach to Syria. Officially, the U.S. backs the Arab League plan calling for Assad to step down and hand over to a vice president. Ford echoed that thought, then threw in his silly caveat about Syria’s people being the final arbiter of their own future. But is it the Syrians alone, or Syrians backed by the Arab League and the determination of the international community, who will ultimately shape outcomes in Damascus?
The U.S. finds itself lost between a desire to see the back of Assad and fear of a Syrian civil war. Doesn’t almost everybody? Yet most governments have prioritized their objectives. For Russia and Iran, the red line is preserving their interests, and both feel today that this requires Assad to remain in office. The Gulf states, in turn, want Assad to be gone, denying Iran a key ally in the Levant. The U.S. has no reason to engage with the Iranians, but Russia is different. If Russian estimates about Assad’s survivability are faulty, as they may well be, then U.S. diplomacy must work on that front. The Russians will defend Assad to the hilt, but once they deem him to be a liability for their relations with the U.S., the Europeans and the Arab world, and once they realize that his leadership is all but finished, they will contemplate alternatives, if only to protect what is theirs in Syria.
Many Arab regimes have already concluded that the only way to undermine Assad is to arm the Free Syrian Army. That debate replicates one that took place two decades ago over Bosnia. At the time, the George H. W. Bush administration and European governments opposed lifting an arms embargo on Bosnia, effectively ceding the advantage to the better-armed Serbs. The Clinton administration sought to change that policy, while a further impetus to arm the Bosnian Muslims came from within Congress. In the end, the Bosnian army did acquire more weapons and, with NATO and Croatian assistance, obliged the Bosnian-Serbs to accept a settlement.
A Syrian civil war is a fearful prospect, but American indecision is not going to prevent one from taking place. If Washington and the Europeans dither, the Gulf states won’t, and weapons will enter Syria anyway, as they already are. Better for the Obama administration to devise a political approach that embraces, while also controlling, a military dimension that would push Assad to reconsider his options. The starting point for any resolution in Syria must be the departure of the current regime. A transitional project can be a modified form of the Arab League plan, with guarantees to Syria’s minorities. Russia must be brought into the effort, perhaps with assurances that its interests will be looked after in a post-Assad Syria, because its backing is what is truly propping up the Syrian leadership.
Washington needs to get a grip. Its policy toward Syria has been strangely disconnected from its other regional priority, namely containing Iran. It took many months for the administration to acknowledge the Syrian crisis as a major issue. By insisting, on the record and off, that there is nothing they can do in Syria, American officials have effectively ensured that they will do nothing. Their performance has been craven and one-dimensional – in a word, pathetic.
The writer is a columist and political commentator. This article first appeared in The Daily Star on Feb 23, 2012