The Obama administration’s policy on Syria is moving in such excruciatingly slow increments that it’s often difficult for the naked eye to detect any policy at all. That process is unlikely to accelerate much in coming weeks, despite a flurry of activity lately, including Secretary of State John Kerry’s planned trip to Russia next week.
Recent indications that the administration has shifted its position on arming the Syrian rebels and is readying a response to alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime are premature, said an administration official who is knowledgeable about the internal discussions on Syria.
In both cases, the president, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and other senior officials continue to be haunted by the lessons of both Iraq and Libya, said this official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The administration recently acknowledged that besieged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may have used small amounts of the nerve agent sarin, but delivered the news with extreme caution because of the botched intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s alleged possession of chemical weapons before the Iraq war. “People are openly citing the Iraq assessment as a warning,” the official said.
The administration is also under increasing pressure to arm the rebels, with Kerry having acknowledged a Saudi estimate that the death toll could be as high as 90,000. But here, too, the president is being very cautious because of the intervention he backed in Libya—which, even though it was far more straightforward, still went badly. “And in Libya we knew who the opposition was. They weren’t perfect, but we knew them. In Syria, we just don’t know who these groups are, and who will join them later,” the official said. “Clearly the radicalized element is of much more of concern in Syria than in Libya. It’s right next to Iraq. You have a lot of historical and geopolitical reasons why the al-Qaida-inspired threat is much, much higher.”
Another administration official confirmed that supplying military aid to the Syrian rebels was still an option being considered, but that was all. White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden added that “our assistance to the Syrian opposition has been on an upward trajectory,” and that President Obama “has directed his national security team to identify additional measures so that we can continue to increase our assistance.... We continue to consider all other possible options that would accomplish our objective of hastening a political transition, but have no new announcements at this time.”
Nor is there likely to be much of a shift when Kerry meets his counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Moscow. Given all the U.S. caveats about chemical-weapon use, Russian President Vladimir Putin will probably not be persuaded to abandon his qualified support for Assad. Even the French government, which has been the most aggressive among the NATO allies in supporting aid to the rebels, has expressed doubt about the solidity of the sarin evidence. “France has at this stage suspicions but lacks absolute certainty,” a French diplomat told National Journal, speaking on condition of anonymity. “That’s why we’ve asked the [U.N. secretary-general] to launch an independent investigation, in order to gather evidence and not just indications on the possible use of chemical weapons.”
The president, at his news conference on Tuesday, appeared to walk back even the heavily qualified statement that his own congressional liaison, Miguel Rodriguez, delivered last week in a letter to senators. Whereas Rodriguez had written definitively that “our intelligence community does assess, with varying degrees of confidence, that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons," Obama did not ascribe the alleged offense to Assad. “What we have now is evidence that chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria, but we don’t know how they were used, when they were used, who used them,” the president said.
So don’t expect a news flash on Syria any time soon. The administration’s policy, to the extent it has one, is to test the waters of the Syrian revolution very gingerly, no matter how many are dying, while Assad’s power slowly evaporates. “First we supplied communications and medical aid, then we helped the rebels to organize, and then we recognized them,” the official said, referring to the Supreme Military Council headed by Gen. Salim Idriss, who defected from Assad’s army last year. “Now the million-dollar question is: What will Assad do? Do we trust that he can negotiate a path to end his regime? Does he think he’s going to die peacefully, or is the only way he leaves power is with a bullet in head?
“I don’t know what the name is for the policy, but it’s not stagnant. It is moving, very slowly.”
Almost too slowly to see.
Correction: An earlier version of the story misstated the day of the president's press conference. It was Tuesday.
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