Syria civil war rages: why Hillary Clinton is focused on what comes after

The US is eager to keep undesirable actors out of a post-Assad Syria, but when Hillary Clinton meets Saturday with senior Turkish officials and Syrian opposition figures, they'll want to discuss the raging civil war.

Brendan Smialowski/AP/File
In this July photo, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius attend the 'Friends of Syria' conference in Paris. The United States is readying new sanctions on Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime and its allies as Clinton heads to Turkey on Friday for weekend talks with top Turkish officials and Syrian opposition activists.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will meet in Turkey Saturday with senior Turkish officials and Syrian opposition figures, amid signs of deepening international involvement in the Syrian conflict.

With events accelerating in Syria – from high-profile defections from the regime of President Bashar al-Assad to rebel progress in taking and holding territory – Secretary Clinton says her meetings in Turkey will focus on “the day after” Assad’s fall and how to help a post-Assad Syria avoid sectarian warfare, reprisal killings, and a rise in extremism.

Yet while Clinton says her discussions will focus on “what happens next,” the reality is that her interlocutors – both the Turks and the Syrian opposition – want to talk about what is happening now: a raging civil war that analysts say is taking an average of 200 lives a day and showing worrisome signs of engulfing the neighborhood.

“As the situation in Syria heats up, so does the region,” say Robert Danin, a senior fellow in Middle Eastern affairs at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in Washington. Iran, he says, is just one country that has considerable stakes in Syria and will want to remain a player there.

Turkey does not want to get dragged into the Syrian conflict, but it is already dealing with thousands of refugees fleeing across its border and is concerned about the destabilizing aspects of a prolonged conflict next door.

Syria’s rebels have opened up a corridor from the embattled city of Aleppo to the Turkish border. But they say they need more and heavier arms to make further progress, and are pressing the United States to provide such weapons as anti-aircraft missiles for what some say could still be a long fight ahead.

The US currently is providing communications equipment, and some special operations forces are reported to be on the ground in Turkey – primarily to provide intelligence on Al Qaeda’s role in the anti-Assad rebellion and presumably to offer some assistance to the rebels. But so far the Obama administration has stopped short of a more robust intervention.

Clinton’s added stop in Turkey at the end of a 10-day swing through sub-Saharan Africa underscores the administration’s growing concerns in the face of evidence of growing involvement by outside players that the US would like to keep out of a post-Assad Syria.

On Thursday the US ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, described Iran’s role in Syria as “nefarious” for how it and its proxy, Hezbollah, are providing assistance to a regime that is massacring its own people.

The Obama administration on Friday designated Hezbollah for Treasury Department action for its material support to the Assad regime. “Hezbollah’s extensive support to the Syrian government’s violent suppression of the Syrian people exposes the true nature of this terrorist organization and its destabilizing presence in the region,” said David Cohen, undersecretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, in a statement. 

Also Friday, the Treasury Department designated 29 Syrian government officials and five Syrian companies for their role in the regime’s repressive actions and for developing non-conventional weapons.    

The US has listed Hezbollah as a terrorist organization since 1995, but Friday’s order targets the Lebanon-based group specifically for its operations in Syria. Hezbollah is coordinating its support for Assad with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force, the Treasury Department said in its statement.

Iran displayed its deep interest in Syria this week by holding an international conference on the Syrian conflict that attracted diplomats from Russia, China, and other countries that have opposed United Nations Security Council intervention in the conflict.

Earlier in the week Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, dispatched his chief national security adviser to Damascus to underscore Tehran’s support for Assad. Iran’s national security adviser, Saeed Jalili, told Assad that Iran supports Syria as an “essential part” of an “axis of resistance” that Tehran would not allow “to be broken in any way.”

The CFR’s Mr. Danin says Iran’s outspoken commitment to Assad is worrisome because Iran has already demonstrated that it is “willing to take risks in the use of force” to further its aims. But he and other experts say Iran is far from the only challenge the US faces in a transitioning Syria, and they say the growing presence of Islamist extremists in Syria is of particular concern.

“Syria is becoming a magnet for jihadis globally,” says Ed Husain, who is also a senior fellow at CFR in Washington. “In our enthusiasm to see the fall of the Assad regime, we’re at risk of encouraging the rise of jihadi elements,” he says.

That “risk” is just one of the factors explaining Clinton’s focus on “what comes next’ in Syria, Danin says. “We have to be concerned about what happens afterwards,” he says, adding that the “after” will nevertheless be determined in large part by how Syria gets to a post-Assad period.

“The way Assad is brought down,” he says, “will shape the way the country evolves afterwards.” 

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