The Obama administration is nearing a potential decision point on Syria: stick to the current diplomatic approach, which shows no signs of persuading Bashar al-Assad to step aside, or offer assistance to the country’s rebels despite the risks of destabilizing a strategically important country and potentially giving al-Qaida a foothold there.
The choice has grown far more pressing -- and complicated -- because of mounting evidence that a fragile cease-fire negotiated by U.N. envoy Kofi Annan has been largely ignored by Assad’s forces, resulting in hundreds of additional civilian casualties in the weeks since it was supposed to take effect.
At the same time, a pair of large-scale suicide attacks in the Syrian capital of Damascus raised immediate fears that al-Qaida may be expanding its operations inside the country as a way of bringing down Assad and working to replace his government with a more Islamist one.
Western diplomats also acknowledge that deadly attacks like Thursday’s blasts, which killed at least 55 people, could sap public sympathy for the rebels and paradoxically buy Assad more time. Adding to the complexities, senior U.S. policymakers acknowledge they have little intelligence about the size of al-Qaida’s presence in Syria or its planned operations there.
“We do have intelligence that indicates that there is an al-Qaida presence in Syria,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Thursday. “But frankly, we don't have very good intelligence as to just exactly what their activities are. And that's the reason we can't really indicate specifically what they are or are not doing.”
Syria has long posed uniquely difficult policy choices for the administration, which hopes to push Assad out of power with economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure rather than military force.
The position reflects that of the Pentagon’s senior civilian and military leadership, who warn that Assad’s military is far more powerful than Libya’s, that the rebels remain disorganized and lack any clear leadership, and that Assad’s departure could allow his regime’s chemical and biological weapons to fall into the wrong hands.
Panetta nodded at those concerns, saying “the most effective way to deal with the situation in Syria is not unilaterally, but working with all of our international partners to ... bring as much pressure as we can, diplomatically, economically, and every other way” on Assad.
But the administration’s position is becoming harder to justify with the failure of the peace plan to reduce the violence. Annan warned this week that the ongoing strife meant Syria could “descend into full civil war” -- an outcome that could easily come to pass if Assad falls and the country’s Sunni Arab majority turns on the Alawite minority that has long ruled.
Pressure for some form of military intervention has also been mounting sharply, with Gulf Arab states promising to funnel money and weaponry to the rebels and Turkey speaking openly about using its air force to create humanitarian “safe zones” along its border with Syria.
Republican defense hawks have pressed the administration to begin arming the Syrian rebels, a move the White House opposes because of fears the weaponry could fall into the wrong hands or be used in any post-Assad internecine fight for power.
The GOP demands got an unexpected boost this week when Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., a close administration ally, called for a more muscular effort to push Assad from power.
"The concept of a safe zone is a reality and worth the discussion,” Kerry told The Cable. “If we can enhance the unity of the opposition, we could consider lethal aid and those kinds of things."
Some Syria experts advocate a middle-of-the-road approach which would see Washington increase its direct assistance to the rebels without actually giving them weaponry and munitions. In congressional testimony last month, Syria expert Andrew Tabler said the U.S. could provide the rebels with intelligence about “the deployment and movement of regime forces … especially as they approach population centers for an assault.”
Such an approach could spare the U.S. from the risks of arming rebel groups about which Washington knows very little, or mounting air strikes despite the prospect of being dragged into an open-ended situation. But it might not be enough to dislodge Assad.
Ultimately, the choice confronting Washington and its allies may come down to this: stick to the current path and allow Syria’s carnage to continue or use military force and risk seeing dangerous and unpredictable outcomes. Whichever path it chooses, the time for a decision is drawing nearer.