As the tide turns to the rebels’ favor in Syria’s brutal twenty-one-month-old civil war, the Obama Administration has finally found a faction it can work with.
On Tuesday, President Obama said that he was extending U.S. recognition to the recently-organized National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the “legitimate representatives of the Syrian people.” In doing so, he was following the example already set by the governments of the Gulf Arab states, Turkey, the U.K., and France. But he opted to hedge his bet in a way those other countries have not. Even as it was recognizing one rebel organization, the U.S. government was also branding the Al-Nusra Front, one of the most active and effective of the allied groups fighting the Assad regime, as an Islamist terrorist organization linked to Al Qaeda in Iraq.
The moves by the U.S. follow closely on the heels of a couple of weeks of intense battlefield activity by the Syrian rebels, in which they seemed to have overcome some longstanding deficiencies. Appearing to be better armed than ever before, and showing greater tactical coördination amongst themselves, the rebels seized a number of military bases and brought the war closer to central Damascus, effectively surrounding it on three sides. They also began attacks aimed at seizing control of the international airport, located some fifteen miles outside the city. Flights in and out were suspended for several days, and simultaneously Syria’s Internet and telephone lines were cut. The blackout heightened the growing international perception that the endgame in Syria is approaching. (A friend in Damascus told me on Wednesday that the atmosphere there, with bombings and shooting now occurring all the time, is exceedingly anxious and tense—will the lives of most people now revolve around everyday basics such as securing sufficient food and fuel. Gasoline and bread are now very scarce, and in the places where the government has subsidized bakeries, the lines to buy rationed supplies—a few days worth per family—are three hours long.)
Even Assad’s remaining allies are now acknowledging that the end of his time in power seems near. On Thursday, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister conceded that the recent rebel gains make it appear likely that Assad will lose the war, the first such admission by a senior Russian official. (Russia, along with Iran and China, has provided diplomatic backing in the U.N. for Assad’s regime—and Russia is also Syria’s main military supplier.) He warned, though, that the denouement could be protracted and extremely bloody, costing tens, or even hundreds of thousands of Syrian lives. He reiterated the official Russian proposal for dialogue and a negotiated settlement. (On Friday, the Russian foreign ministry issued a statement disavowing the official’s more pessimistic remarks.)
Given all these developments, the timing of the White House’s decision to proffer diplomatic recognition to Syria’s rebels is certainly opportune, but it was not made in haste. U.S. State Department officials have been busy for months in behind-the-scenes efforts trying to assemble a functioning pro-Western Syrian opposition with a head and tail that speaks together. Now there will no doubt be more negotiations, and some arm wrestling, over the move by the U.S. to isolate the jihadist Al-Nusra Front, which even Sheikh Moaz al-Khatib, the relatively moderate religious leader of the new U.S.-approved coalition, has said he thinks was unwise. Notwithstanding these sticking points, the newly formalized relationship means that Americans will now be able to participate in the ongoing conversation about the composition of the Syrian opposition, moving the U.S. closer to its goal of having the eventual post-Assad regime be a friendly one, or at least one that it can have some leverage over, possibly in exchange for stepped-up, and potentially crucial, aid dollars and other forms of support.
Now the question is whether the U.S. will take more direct steps to hasten the installation of that post-Assad government. Ramping up the pressure last week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other U.S. officials expressed alarm at the prospect that Assad’s regime might use its reportedly sizable chemical-weapons cache in a final desperate act. Intelligence evidence showing that precursor agents to sarin gas, a lethal nerve agent, had been loaded by Syrian military units onto aerial bombs had caused them to break their silence, the officials explained. This was heatedly denied by senior Syrian officials, who nonetheless warned of the possibility that radical Islamist rebels might lay their hands on such weapons. (This week, Panetta said that the danger of chemical-weapons use appeared to have eased.)
It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Assad’s government itself may be the source for the latest sarin scare, dangling the threat of its endgame use of chemical weapons in order to broker a deal for its own survival. There have been a number of reports that U.S. special-forces units have been stationed in neighboring Jordan for months, training with allied troops to prepare for operations to secure Syria’s several dozen reported chemical-weapons sites in the event of the regime’s collapse. But those same reports have quoted U.S. officials expressing their doubts about being able to secure all the sites. In light of those reservations, and President Obama’s statements that Syria’s use of its chemical weapons would constitute a “red line” for the U.S., Assad may well have gambled that his chemical weapons may be a key not to his downfall, but to his survival.
For Assad, doing something to trigger a U.S. military intervention, even a limited one, might be a fatal misstep—or it could possibly be precisely what he needs to do to survive. The jihadists now fighting him might well turn their fire instead on the Americans, as they did before in Iraq.
For President Obama, U.S. military intervention has to be the least desirable of all possible actions—one with unforeseeable consequences, including the risk of becoming mired in a new, multi-sided Middle East conflict. For that reason, the threshold at which the U.S. might become more directly involved remains necessarily ambiguous, leaving the U.S. and Syria to test one another a little more closely all the time, in an old-fashioned, but very high-stakes game of chicken.
The New Yorker