US inching closer to favoring arms for Syria rebels

The US has so far used diplomacy to put pressure on the regime of Syria President Assad. But as the death toll mounts, the Obama administration's opposition to arming Syria rebels may be softening.

Syrian rebels aim during a weapons training exercise outside Idlib, Syria, on Feb. 14.

The United States is inching closer in favor of arming Syria's rebels, as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton prepares for a gathering in Tunisia Friday of Western and Arab countries favoring regime change in Syria.

So far in Syria’s year-old uprising, the US has focused on diplomatic measures for pressuring the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. That preference for diplomacy probably has some life left in it, most foreign policy experts say.

But the Obama administration's opposition to arming the rebels appears to be softening, as civilian casualties mount under continued bombardment of rebel strongholds by Assad forces and with news Wednesday that two Western journalists holed up in the Syrian city of Homs were killed by mortar fire.

No automatic triggers exist that would cause the US to shift to open support of an international effort to arm the rebels, regional experts say.

“Given the strong opposition the administration has expressed to arming the opposition and to feeding the fires of Syria’s conflict, it doesn’t seem likely they’d turn on a dime and suddenly favor that,” says Robert Danin, senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “At the same time,” he adds, “I think they want to let all the parties know they have other strategies to turn to if the diplomatic measures they prefer fail to produce.”

On Tuesday both the White House and the State Department said the US still wants to avoid actions that could contribute to Syria’s “militarization,” but hinted that “additional measures” could become necessary at some point if Mr. Assad fails to yield and the repression continues. So far, between 7,000 and 8,000 people have died in the Syria uprising against the Assad government, rights groups say, noting precise figures are hard to come by because information is hard to verify. 

But that point doesn’t seem to have arrived yet for the White House, says Mr. Danin. The US is “coming late” to focus on Syria for a number of reasons – intervention fatigue, a focus on domestic issues, deep concerns over the geopolitical ramifications of an imploding Syria – so now the administration’s attention “has an air of improvisation” to it.

“I certainly don’t see a road map or an escalatory ladder,” he says.   

But others say Secretary Clinton’s participation in Friday’s “friends of Syria” meeting suggests that the US sees no option but to get more deeply involved. Some note that it was Clinton who last year persuaded President Obama to commit US military might to the effort to bring down Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi.

No one expects the US to engage its forces in Syria under any circumstances, and even direct arming of the rebels by the US may remain out of the question. More likely might be a US agreement to supply nonlethal equipment and supplies while other countries in the region – for example the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia, or even Turkey – agree to provide arms.

If mortar fire continues to fall on Homs and other opposition enclaves during the “friends of Syria” meeting, some regional experts say they expect the meeting “one way or another” to result in a flow of arms to the rebels. The meeting might officially focus on humanitarian measures, they say, but some countries might agree behind the scenes to begin sending in weapons.

Hints of more aggressive measures by the countries gathering in Tunis already appear to be leading some Syria allies to soften their opposition to any international measures. Russia, which last month vetoed a Security Council resolution on Syria, said this week that it favors sending a United Nations envoy to Syria and a new effort by the Security Council to approve humanitarian measures to address the Syrian crisis.

As tempting as a more militaristic stance toward an unyielding Assad may be, the US would be wisest to stick to diplomatic pressures, say some regional experts. 

“Though advocates of military intervention claim it is the moral choice, it is not,” says Marc Lynch, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington and director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University. “Military intervention will allow Americans to feel they are doing something,” he adds, “but unleashing even more violence without a realistic prospect of changing the regime’s behavior or improving security is neither just nor wise.”

Instead, the US should focus on further isolating Assad, continuing to tighten sanctions on the regime, working to strengthen the opposition, and helping it “develop a unified political voice,” Dr. Lynch says.

He also suggests presenting Assad with “an ultimatum”: either resign, or be referred to the International Criminal Court for war crimes.

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