For months the U.S. sent supplies such as communications gear and computers to Idris and the moderate forces aligned with him, but stopped well short of sending the heavy weaponry the U.S.-backed fighters requested for fear that those weapons would end up in the wrong hands. And then last week the Islamic Front forces overtook the moderates’ headquarters, taking possession of some laptops and, according to one version of the story, swiftly beginning an inventory of gear – all without firing a shot.
“This is a problem, I mean, what has occurred here, a big problem,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday, at the Pentagon. “And we’re going to have to work through it and manage through it with General Idris and the moderate opposition.”
Peace talks in Geneva scheduled for next month now face an even tougher battle to produce a plan that will lead to peace in Syria, or anything even resembling it. Already the bloody conflict has produced an extraordinary humanitarian catastrophe: more than 100,000 people — the population of Cambridge, MA — are estimated to have been killed in two-and-a-half years. More than 2 million Syrians are refugees, half are children, many of whom are no longer in school. Polio and starvation have surfaced. And there is no end in sight, as Assad, with help from Iranian forces, looks stronger than ever against an increasingly fractured and radical armed opposition.
“Scores of civilians, many of them children, have again fallen victim to brutal violence, and we are outraged at the alarming reports, including reports of invasive house raids, kidnappings and extrajudicial killings,” State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf said in a statement on Thursday. “We also note and condemn the latest report of a massacre of civilians in Adra.”
Officials close to U.S. Syria policy acknowledge that the State Department pressed hard to schedule the Geneva conference, even as moderate opponents to the Assad regime saw little to gain from negotiating with a president rapidly solidifying his hold on power while the United Nations implicates him in war crimes. While the U.S. promised last June that it would arm the moderate rebel forces, that support was slow to come and has proved a weak match against rival Islamist forces.
Those advocating for the armed Syrian moderates, known as the Supreme Military Council, or SMC, say that the disarray was not inevitable, but entirely avoidable with the proper resources.
“We did not have to be at this point,” said Dan Layman of the Syrian Support Group, a Washington-based advocacy organization. “The allies of the SMC did not support that structure to the point that it was sustainable, to the point that it could maintain those loyalties and keep a large number of fighters nationwide. What happened is that those extremist fighters were well-funded and we were outplayed. It did not have to be this way, but this is what happened thanks to a general hesitancy to act.”
All along, President Obama’s hesitancy has called into question what, exactly, American policy is and was in Syria. In the summer of 2011, Obama said that the “time has come for President Assad to step aside.” Yet, the actual policy of the U.S. in Syria has looked more like containment than regime change. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey this year publicly recommended using the military to keep the conflict from spreading outside of Syria, but not to intervene with direct military force. The administration’s decision this fall to abort military strikes in favor of negotiating a deal with Assad to destroy his chemical weapons stockpiles only furthered that impression.
“It is not at all clear what our objective is,” says Amb. Dennis Ross, who served as special advisor on Iran for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. “Without an objective you can’t identify what are the appropriate means to mobilize. We don’t have any leverage.”
It comes down to transition versus containment, Ross says. And those lead down two very different policy paths. “One is to create a transition to a Syria that doesn’t fall apart,” Ross says. “The other is a focus on the likelihood that you are not going to produce a political outcome.” Earlier this spring a U.S. diplomat characterized American policy in Syria as “containment at all costs.” And increasingly the public discussion has sounded as if it were headed down a counterterrorism path.
In August, outgoing Deputy CIA Director Michael Morrellcalled Syria “probably the most important issue in the world today” given the foreign fighters flowing in, the conflict’s potential to sow regional chaos and the weaponry the country’s chaos would leave up for grabs.
“I do feel like there is a CT shift that is being taken on, like the administration is saying ‘this has now taken a turn for the worse and our safety is being directly threatened,’” Layman said. “I get the feeling that a countering extremist policy is where the attention of the administration is.”
For his part, Ross says that the threat of foreign fighters plus the desire to avoid boots on the ground make counterterrorism an increasingly possible path. “We have been very reluctant to use force. CT means many different things, including training those forces we can support. It also means drones. We do that in Yemen against al-Qaeda. Are we headed toward that in Syria? Could be.”
But that again, Ross argued, raises the question of what exactly is America’s aim in Syria? Is it to keep the country together and fulfill the June 2012 Geneva Declaration’s goal of creating a “transitional governing body” that “would exercise full executive powers?” Or is it simply to protect the United States from the potential threat posed by extremist fighters energized by the battle to oust Assad?
“CT is still a means, not an objective,” he said.
What is certain is that an already impossibly complicated situation has just grown even more unwieldy. And an administration that has long felt it had no good choices in Syria now feels it has even fewer.
“We’re assessing what has happened, where we are,” Hagel said, noting the administration is “evaluating right now” its next steps. “It reflects on the complexity of this problem. There are many dangerous elements. We know al-Nusra, we know al-Qaida, we know Hezbollah, extremist groups, terrorist groups are involved in this. So it’s not a matter of just an easy choice between the good guys and the bad guys here.”
“We look to — as we have said — a diplomatic resolution, solution, settlement,” Hagel said. “We continue to pursue that effort. As we organize toward Geneva II next month, I think the efforts — getting the international community involved with us on the chemical weapons issue, through a U.S. Security Council resolution. The Russians have been helpful. You got the international community working with us. That could be some help toward building a bridge to get us to a diplomatic settlement.”