Syria civil war: This week could be decisive for US involvement

Secretary of State John Kerry travels to Moscow to discuss international pressure on Syria, following Israel’s targeted airstrikes on Damascus over the weekend.

Susan Walsh/AP
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (r.) welcomes Secretary of State John Kerry to his office at the Pentagon in Washington, Monday. Hagel invited Kerry to the Pentagon for a working lunch to discuss a range of national security issues.

With President Obama dispatching Secretary of State John Kerry to Moscow even as Israel launches targeted airstrikes on Damascus, this could turn out to be a decisive week for US involvement in the Syrian conflict.

Mr. Obama has long sought to keep the United States out of what would likely be an attention-consuming, domestically unpopular, and ultimately inconclusive US intervention in Syria’s civil war. But with the war reaching new levels of violence and now seriously threatening to spill over into a regional conflict, the president may have little choice but to reverse course and intervene in some way.

What, if anything, Secretary Kerry is able to work out with the Russians in terms of international pressure on Syria, and where Israel’s weekend strikes lead in the coming days, are likely to alter the course of US action. In any event, both components are part of a scenario of suddenly expanding pressure on Obama to move decisively on Syria.

“This is a risk-averse president – rightly so in this case, I would add – being pulled closer and closer to some kind of intervention,” says Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

“At some point he’ll push it a step further” and decide what to do, Mr. Miller says – perhaps choosing from a set of options administration officials are presenting that range from arming the rebels to establishing a no-fly zone over northern Syria.

But Obama is as keenly aware as anyone that there are no good options for resolving the Syrian crisis, says Miller, a former State Department adviser on Middle East issues with experience in both Democratic and Republican administrations.

“Whatever the US decides to do, it won’t be precipitous action” that somehow brings to an end, he says, a 2-year-old war that has left 76,000 Syrians dead and hardened internal divisions to the breaking point.

An ongoing debate in the administration over whether to intervene – and if so, in what manner – has shifted in recent weeks in favor of some form of intervention, some US officials say. At a Pentagon press conference last week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the US was in the process of “rethink[ing] all options.”

That shift, prompted in part by evidence that chemical weapons were used in the conflict, could accelerate, they add, if there are signs of a dangerous expansion of the war into a broader conflict.

On Sunday, Israel reportedly struck targets in Syria twice, in one case hitting missiles thought to be destined for Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Shiite Muslim organization that is actively aiding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his fight with largely Sunni rebels. Israel has long said its top concern in the Syrian conflict is the potential for transfer of weaponry to its enemies.  

Kerry, who will meet in Moscow with President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, could use the latest events in Syria to try to extract a more cooperative stance from Russia, which continues to shield Mr. Assad from international pressure to step down and make way for a political transition.

The US and Russia joined other international powers last year in calling for a political transition in Syria, but no progress has been made in that direction since then. The US wants to see if Russia is ready to move forward on Syria – both as a result of recent events and given signs that the US is moving closer to intervention in the absence of international diplomatic action, senior administration officials say.

“Events have moved forward on the ground, and so this is a time to talk to the Russians, [for them] to understand that from our side, we remain committed, and if they are as well, then we need to think about how to work operationally to make [a political transition] happen,” says a senior State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Up to now, the US has stopped short of providing Syrian rebels with lethal assistance, in part over concerns that weapons such as shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles could fall into the hands of the radical Islamists among the rebels. But the White House is thought to be leaning toward providing arms under some sort of vetting system.

Some members of Congress, including Republican senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, are calling for the US to establish a no-fly zone over parts of Syria to create havens for civilians and rebels.

Virtually no one is calling for American boots on the ground. But even an intervention with no US soldiers ordered into Syria has only minimal support from Americans. And that presents Obama with a scenario he has sought to avoid: announcing to war-weary Americans yet another Middle East intervention.

A new Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll shows nearly two-thirds of Americans – 62 percent – oppose US intervention in Syria, with only a quarter in favor. Those results are in line with other recent polls gauging the US appetite for military intervention in Syria.

The Monitor poll, taken April 30-May 4 among 825 respondents, found that even solid evidence of the Assad regime using chemical weapons against its own people would not shift the balance in favor of US military action. In such a case, 48 percent of Americans said they would favor continuing humanitarian assistance to civilians and some “technological assistance” to the rebels.

But only 12 percent said chemical weapons would be cause enough for the US to help arm the rebels, while 13 percent said it should prompt the use of US air power in the conflict.

The average American’s reluctance to see the US intervene in Syria may have only been reinforced by events since the poll was taken. Both the Israeli airstrikes in Syria and reports Monday from a UN official of evidence that some rebels used the nerve agent sarin in their fighting should leave the US even more cautious, some say.

The rebels’ reported use of sarin “shows how little the [US] government really knows about what’s going on in this complex and bloody civil war, [and] it should make us extremely cautious about becoming involved militarily and reluctant about providing military support for the Syrian rebels,” says David Cortright, director of policy studies at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies in Indiana.

Some pro-intervention voices in Washington jumped quickly on the Israeli airstrikes as further proof of resolute Israeli action in the face of an indecisive US administration. But others, like Mr. Cortright, say the Israeli action only further complicates a thicket the US should avoid.

“The Israeli attacks against Syria are a blatant violation of international law,” he says. “They increase the risk of the conflict spreading further in the region and should make us even more hesitant about becoming involved militarily.”

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