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Rice could push for intervention in Syria, says analyst

Susan Rice was an early advocate for Nato's campaign in Libya and has been a vocal supporter of US intervention in foreign conflicts on humanitarian grounds, meaning her appointment as national security adviser could lead to a change in US policy.

NEW YORK // The shake-up of Barack Obama's national security team could be the final step towards more support for Syria's rebels or even direct intervention, an analyst said on Wednesday.

Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations and close ally of the US president, is expected to replace the present national security adviser, Tom Donilon, who is set to step down early next month.

The national security adviser, who dictates the president's policy to the various cabinet agencies that implement them, is thought to be the most influential foreign-policy position in Washington after the president.

In an administration that has concentrated decision-making in the White House and away from the state department, the position is potentially more powerful than secretary of state.

During his two and a half years on the job, Mr Donilon, 58, was influential in reducing the scope of US military involvement in the world and prioritising Washington's focus on East Asia. He is also said to have been central in advising Mr Obama against supplying direct military support for rebels in Syria.

Ms Rice, however, was an early advocate for Nato's campaign in Libya and has been a vocal supporter of US intervention in foreign conflicts on humanitarian grounds. After China and Russia blocked a UN Security Council resolution condemning Syrian attacks on civilians last year, Ms Rice used highly unusual language for a diplomat, saying the veto "disgusted" the US.

"At least unofficially, Susan Rice is more inclined to take a stronger, more activist US policy to the Syrian crisis than Tom Donilon was," said David Pollock, a former state department official now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank. Combined with a spate of recent developments in Syria, her appointment could push the administration to change its Syria strategy, according to Mr Pollock.

Ms Rice alone would not be enough to change Mr Obama's calculations, Mr Pollock said, but that the worsening military situation for the rebels, increasing reports of chemical weapons being used by the Syrian military and an increase in Russian, Iranian and Hizbollah support for the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, mean there is a "reasonable chance that … there will be a shift in the balance of opinions" in the White House.

Other observers, however, think Ms Rice may have been chastened by the fallout from the intervention in Libya, which included the flourishing of jihadist groups and the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi that eventually derailed her nomination for secretary of state. She may share Mr Obama's concerns about similar groups filling the vacuum of power if Mr Al Assad falls.

Mr Pollock said that the hopes of a successful peace conference could hinge on the rebels making gains in Syria.

"The only thing that would revive the prospects for some kind of negotiations is if the military situation changes again and swings back in favour of the opposition," he added. "In my view, it would be a very good argument for Susan Rice to make: sure we want to have a peace conference, but we're not going to get there unless the opposition is in a stronger position."

Ms Rice will not have to face a confirmation process similar to the one that derailed her nomination as secretary of state. Republicans claimed she knowingly misled the public about the White House's handling of the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi in September 2011.

 

tkhan@thenational.ae