x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

US hamstrung on action in Syria

Red tape in White House and Congress holds up promised weapons to rebels, while costs of direct intervention appear too high.

Fighters of the Free Syrian Army are desperate for weaponry promised by western powers. Khalil Ashawi / Reuters
Fighters of the Free Syrian Army are desperate for weaponry promised by western powers. Khalil Ashawi / Reuters

NEW YORK // With the announced move by the United States to arm Syrian rebels still bogged down in congress, as well as by legal red tape in the White House, the likelihood of a direct western military role in the conflict any time soon appears increasingly remote.

It has been a month and a half since England and France pressured reluctant European Union partners to drop an embargo on the supply of weapons to rebels fighting the forces of Bashar Al Assad, Syria's president.

That was followed shortly by a similar move from Washington, where the White House on June 13 said that it would supply weapons to Syria's opposition. The move was prompted by a US intelligence review that concluded that the Syrian military had used chemical weapons multiple times in fighting with rebels.

No weapons have been delivered since. In the US, congress has been slow to grant approval to arms shipments that many fear have no clear address or responsible recipient, given the disarray among the western-backed rebels, and deep concerns about weapons falling into the hands of Al Qaeda-linked groups.

White House lawyers are also reported to be hesitant about a move that could contravene international as well as US law.

The continued reticence in congress to green-light giving direct military aid to some rebel groups has frustrated the Syrian political opposition, which has lobbied US policymakers to do more to change the tide of battle on the ground.

Senior senators from both parties have called on the president, Barack Obama, to intervene more forcefully in the conflict that has raged for more than two years, leaving more than 100,000 dead and creating the world's worst refugee crisis since the 1994 Rwanda genocide, according to the United Nations.

During testimony to a senate panel on Thursday, the top US military officer, Army Gen Martin Dempsey, was grilled by one of the most ardent supporters of US military intervention in Syria, Sen John McCain.

Gen Dempsey told the senator that options for military intervention had been presented to the White House but that "situations can be made worse by the introduction of military force" without first understanding how to ensure that the institutions and services of the state do not fail even if the regime falls.

Gen Dempsey refused to detail the options for the senators. When asked about the general's remarks, the White House spokesman, Jay Carney, said the president was constantly reviewing US options in Syria.

But to the Syrian rebels, it all sounds like more hollow promises.

"Initially congress was banging on the door of the White House, saying 'you're moving too slowly, we need to support the moderates before it's too late'," said George Netto, a Washington-based member of the Syrian National Council, the umbrella group that the West recognises as the sole legitimate political representative of the Syrian opposition. "It is very frustrating to now see even congress" moving slower.

Congressional action has been far more cautious than its members' rhetoric, in large part over mounting concerns about Israel's security, said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma who spent last week in Washington meeting government officials.

"Israel fears the US will become ensconced in a Syrian brawl and take its eye off of Iran," he said.

But the lack of a clearly articulated Syria policy also stems from the realisation that there is nothing the US can do to decisively bring an end to the conflict and help stabilise the country, according to analysts.

Doing more militarily could lead to unforeseeable outcomes that are bad for the interests of the US and its allies, said Mr Landis. Short of committing troops on the ground, there is no guarantee that an escalation of its military role, even airstrikes or creating a no-fly zone, would force the Assad regime to the negotiating table, given its resilience with the support of Iran and Russia.

By announcing that he will send what are thought to be no more than light arms to rebels, "Obama is trying to find ways to say 'yes' while saying 'no' and hoping that something changes in his favour", said Mr Landis.

In the meantime, the administration can live with the status quo, "which is: there are no good guys in Syria, don't let it spill into the neighborhood too badly, and we can live with patchwork security inside Syria", he added.

Moreover, there is little consensus between agencies such as the state department and defence department - or even within them - about how to best address the seemingly infinite strategic challenges Syria has thrown up.

Add in the unpredictable tumult and rapid change in the region, and policy evolution is likely to remain glacial.

"I don't think the players have a real appreciation of the unparalleled set of pressures, from the economic environment and sequestration, to the pivot to Asia, to public opinion, that the administration has to deal with," said Aram Nerguizian, an analyst of the Levant at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "If some of them did not exist, it would be far easier for the US to engage effectively."

There is a growing acceptance that it will take at least a decade to stabilise Syria and address the underlying causes of the conflict, whether or not Mr Al Assad is deposed. "Arming or not arming disparate rebel groups that are increasingly engaging in a fratricidal side war is just one part of a much bigger puzzle that the US has to deal with," Mr Nerguizian said.

To many in Washington, Mr Landis said, "it's not clear at this point, with the opposition so anti-American and fragmented, that you want them to own more territory. Are there really any moderates? Is it Chalabi-ism - buy love for a few years and end up like Iraq?" he added, referring to Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi exile who was instrumental in selling the invasion of Iraq in Washington.

Mr Netto admitted that the coalition's credibility on the ground in Syria, not just in Washington, was being questioned, as many figures have come to be seen as pawns of regional powers pursuing their own interests, leading to infighting over resources.

The past two months have been the worst for the rebels - militarily, politically and in terms of human suffering, Mr Netto said. "In another two months, it could be too late."