x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

US reviewing options to pressure Al Assad

After Syrian peace talks stalled, the White House is reviewing options to present US president Barack Obama on how to increase pressure on Damascus.

US president Barack Obama meets with his top advisors this week to find a way to increase pressure on Syria's Bashar Al Assad.  Jacquelyn Martin/AP
US president Barack Obama meets with his top advisors this week to find a way to increase pressure on Syria's Bashar Al Assad. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

NEW YORK // With the realisation setting in that Barack Obama’s push for a diplomatic solution to the Syrian war is failing, White House officials this week will begin reviewing options to put more pressure on Damascus.

It is unlikely, however, that the US president will now be more willing to contemplate the direct military involvement, such as providing heavy weapons, no-fly zones and air strikes, that rebels and Washington’s Arab allies want.

Mr Obama has desperately wanted to avoid being pulled into another costly war in the region, one that he believes will continue even if Syrian president Bashar Al Assad is overthrown.

“We have to examine what the alternatives some might be proposing are, and whether they’re in our national security interests, and whether a desire to do something about it could lead us…to take action that can produce the kind of unintended consequences we’ve seen in the past,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Tuesday.

But with peace talks between the western-backed opposition and intransigent representatives of Mr Al Assad stalled, a growing concern in Washington about the threat posed by Al Qaeda-linked militants and the exodus of thousands more refugees as Mr Al Assad’s forces steps up bombardment of civilian areas, US policy is at a tipping point.

The review of options to be presented to Mr Obama could take several weeks, US officials told the Associated Press.

Mr Obama had hoped that Russia, which pushed Mr Al Assad in August to give up his chemical weapons on the eve of a US missile attack, would work with the US on a diplomatic track in Geneva and pressure its ally to at least compromise on the delivery of humanitarian aid.

But as Syria made gains on the battlefield, Mr Al Assad refused to give anything and Moscow appeared unwilling or unable to push him further.

That failure has undermined the US strategy of pushing for a political transition, and the US secretary of state, John Kerry, who spearheaded those efforts with his Russian counterparts, has in recent days voiced increased anger at Russia.

Before meeting Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday, Mr Kerry accused Russia of facilitating the barrel bombing of Syrian cities.

“Russia needs to be a part of the solution and not be contributing so many more weapons and so much more aid that they’re in fact enabling Assad to double down and which is creating an enormous problem.”

He said it was crucial for the international community to consider “exactly what steps can now be taken in the face of this intransigence”.

The search for new ideas on Syria has also been spurred by growing fears that Al Qaeda-linked militants are creating a haven in Syria, and western fighters who have travelled there could return to their countries to carry out attacks.

“That’s one big change from a year ago,” a senior American diplomat told the New York Times. “And it’s beginning to haunt everyone with memories of Afghanistan.”

Those fears have pushed officials to re-examine plans that had been drafted previously to assist western-backed rebels with more training, perhaps by US special forces, for fighting extremists, as well as more weapons.

This month The National revealed the US has increased cash payments to rebel factions.

US officials are also considering other counter-terrorism options, including drone strikes against militants in Syria who may target the US, though that option is still remote, the Associated Press reported.

With Mr Al Assad’s grip on power tightening, US intelligence officials met in Washington last week with counterparts from Arab Gulf countries and Europe to discuss these options, including a Saudi plan to send portable anti-aircraft missile systems to rebels.

Until now, the US prevented the flow of such weapons into Syria because of fears they could fall into the hands of terrorists, but Riyadh, frustrated by Washington’s inaction, may be prepared to do so anyway, and Obama administration officials have reportedly dropped their objections.

The US has pushed for a United Nations Security Council resolution that would guarantee humanitarian corridors for aid to civilians but if that initiative is blocked by Russia, other options could include US-enforced no-fly zones.