Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Inconsistencies make the US guilty in Syria’s stalemate

Recently, the Obama administration has become more critical of Russian support for the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, suggesting that this is hampering a resolution of the conflict in Syria. “They’re, in fact, enabling Assad to double down, which is creating an enormous problem,” secretary of state John Kerry said a few days ago.

Mr Kerry is right to be critical of Russia, which, with Iran, has underwritten the most appalling crimes of the Assad regime in the past three years. However, the secretary could also reflect more on the considerable contradictions in the position of the United States, whose inconsistencies in Syria have effectively allowed the mass murder of civilians there to go ahead.

The Americans want Mr Al Assad to leave office, but have been deeply reluctant to give his adversaries all the military means necessary to bring about such an outcome.

The dilemma for the Obama administration is a fairly straightforward one. American officials believe that if they were to give the Syrian rebels the weapons needed to win a victory in Syria, such weapons could ultimately end up in the hands of jihadi groups. Moreover, the collapse of Al Assad rule threatens to create a vacuum in which extremist Islamists could thrive.

On the other hand, by not supplying qualitatively better weapons to the rebels, the US and western countries have ceded a decisive military advantage to Mr Al Assad, whose Russian and Iranian backers have given his forces what they need to win. This has not only undermined a negotiated settlement, since the Syrian leader has no impetus to concede anything if he is prevailing, it has also strengthened the jihadis who gain by fighting him.

Adding to the complications, the US appears to have implicitly allowed Gulf states to supply portable Chinese anti-aircraft missiles, or manpads, to the rebels, effectively undercutting its own efforts to keep such weaponry out of the conflict.

The Americans must realise that they are pursuing irreconcilable objectives in Syria. There is a growing sense in Washington that American dithering on Syria since 2011 helped facilitate the present situation. Had the Obama administration acted sooner, and more decisively, many believe, the situation might not have festered as it has, and jihadis would have been less able to exploit the Syrian chaos. Today, however, all the options are, admittedly, bad and risky.

This reality led to an odd situation in which Mr Kerry announced last week that Mr Obama had been presented with new policy options on Syria. This was played down by White House press secretary Jay Carney, even if he appeared to confirm the essence of what the secretary of state had said. The impression left was that the president did not want to over-emphasise real change in his Syria policy, which Mr Kerry seemed to be advocating.

It may be that new options will be presented, but there is no sign – or no sign yet – that the American position on Syria will fundamentally shift very much. And the president still has no intention of involving America’s armed forces in Syria, not after the public refusal last year to endorse American missile attacks following Mr Al Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians.

This combination of American diffidence and failure has removed the initiative from the hands of the Obama administration and placed it firmly in the hands of Russia and regional actors such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. What this effectively means is that the dynamics in Syria, which may have dangerous repercussions for the US down the road, are today being largely defined by others.

However, Mr Obama is beginning to grasp that Syria, far from being “someone else’s civil war”, as he once blithely put it, is now very much an American and European concern, if only in the way it might provoke terrorist blowback against the US and Europe. His detachment from Middle Eastern affairs has facilitated this state of affairs. It also increasingly alienated him from governments in the region, many of them American allies, even if that could be changing now, making it considerably more difficult for America to affect outcomes in Syria.

Are there really no solutions? Whatever happens, the US must advance a strategy that involves building up, with its Arab allies, a rebel alignment that can both oust Mr Al Assad and act as a bulwark against Al Qaeda-related groups.

Washington must create a military situation where Moscow is ultimately forced to abandon the Syrian leader, even if it requires using American military power. This could be limited to air power, which former president Bill Clinton successfully employed in Bosnia in the 1990s.

Once the balance on the ground changes, the Obama administration would be in a better position to shape the political endgame, even if it means re-engaging with the Russians and even Iran, this time from a position of strength, to facilitate a transfer of power and avert a vacuum in Damascus. This is immensely tricky, but the notion that the muddled policy of today can be sustained indefinitely is absurd.

The Obama administration must decide what it wants in Syria. If it wants Mr Al Assad out, then it has to do everything to ensure that this happens. If it wants him to remain in office, then it should stop demanding that he leave. But continuing to say that he should leave while giving the rebels no means to remove him is the height of cynicism, one the Russians do not alone possess.

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