WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will hear plenty about Syria when he steps off Air Force One in the Middle East next week, very likely facing new pressure from worried allies to help rebels oust Syrian President Bashar Assad but carrying no change in U.S. policy that could calm fears of the crisis spreading across borders and destabilizing the region.
Obama, who’ll visit Israel, the West Bank and Jordan, has resisted using the American military in the effort and isn’t planning any change to a U.S. approach that’s had little effect in aiding rebels’ efforts to dislodge Assad. Analysts say it’s unclear what message Obama can convey as the conflict hits the two-year milestone Friday with no end in sight and no good policy options left for the administration.
The trip is about “managing expectations, managing the problems, not necessarily offering solutions to these problems,” said Haim Malka, deputy director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research center in Washington.
U.S. officials failed to imagine that Assad could cling to power this long. Their mantra that his “days are numbered” was long ago rendered moot with the death toll in Syria rising to 70,000.
“All this conversation about post-Assad Syria, it seems almost unreal,” said Joel Charny, a vice president at InterAction, an umbrella group for international aid agencies that have been operating in Syria and in neighboring countries.
As the crisis shows little sign of abating, Israel and Jordan have become increasingly anxious. Israel fears the rise of jihadists, the possibility that Syria’s rich cache of weapons might fall into the hands of Hezbollah, and the general disintegration of Syria.
Jordan, already squeezed by a poor economy, is facing a mounting humanitarian crisis: More than 400,000 Syrian refugees have fled over the border to Jordan, a country with a population of just 6 million. Some estimates say the number might hit 1 million by the close of the year.
The White House fears that sending weapons to the rebels might further destabilize the region. Critics say the U.S. approach has been marked by miscalculations and waffling that’s exacerbated the conflict and led to an anti-American backlash from the opposition the U.S. professed to support.
For Jordan, that strikes at fear that goes beyond the refugee camps on its borders. As the Syrian regime deteriorates, and Islamists in Syria grow emboldened, the Islamic opposition in Jordan might become similarly emboldened and push for further reforms, said Marwan Muasher, a former foreign minister of Jordan who’s a vice president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Muasher said he “understands perfectly the administration’s reluctance to do much on Syria,” noting that there’s no domestic pressure in the U.S. for intervening. He warned, though, that the fear of not wanting to arm individuals who might become terrorists might become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“The more you wait, the more you radicalize the opposition, the more you disintegrate the country and the more you destabilize the neighbors like Jordan and Lebanon,” he said.
Obama’s 2008 Republican election opponent, Arizona Sen. John McCain, marked Friday’s anniversary of the uprising by renewing his call for intervention, saying the U.S. should not “stand idle,” but impose a no-fly zone or attack Assad’s aircraft.
The risks of intervening, he said, are “real and serious, but the risks of continuing to do nothing are worse.”
Administration officials have spent millions to build up a credible, pluralistic opposition coalition to little avail: The leaders are at loggerheads over competing ideologies and are derided by Syrians as exiles riding out the revolt in five-star hotels. They’ve failed to pick a prime minister or agree on whether to negotiate with the regime, much less form a viable government in waiting.
And the leader of the U.S.-backed coalition, Mouaz al Khatib, has expressed support for the militant rebel Nusra Front faction, which the U.S. has designated as part of the al Qaida in Iraq terrorist group.
Even as the U.S. tries to empower the non-Islamist rebel forces via a reported covert training program in Jordan and a new pledge of food rations and medical supplies, Nusra and its allies remain the most successful at bloodying the regime and capturing territory.
While there have been sporadic protests against Nusra’s Islamist rule in some liberated areas, there’s nowhere near the backlash the United States is betting on as it tries to isolate the Islamists. What Syrians will remember is that the Islamists – via their backers such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia – brought guns to the fight, while the Obama administration was embroiled in an internal debate that ended with the president deciding against arming the rebels.
The administration is providing the Syrian opposition with humanitarian and “nonlethal” assistance. Vice President Joe Biden told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee last week that while the administration is intent on seeing Assad removed, “we are not signing up for one murderous gang replacing another in Damascus.”
Biden said the U.S. recognized the danger that Syria’s weapons arsenals posed and had set a “clear red line” that would be triggered by their use or transfer. Administration officials have said the red line is the use of the weapons, though Obama suggested last August that the red line would be set on moving or using the weapons.
The Israeli threshold for action – as illustrated earlier this year with an airstrike – appears lower. Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, said Wednesday that Israel had made it clear that if “Syria attempts to transfer chemical or game-changing weapons to Hezbollah, we will act."
Israeli officials wouldn’t telegraph what they intend to tell Obama, but Oren said they wanted Assad to go.
“We understand there’s a growing jihadist element among the opposition,” he said. “But Assad’s departure will deliver a tremendous blow to Hezbollah and Assad’s patron in Tehran."
The White House and State Department sidestepped questions about a reported covert training program. But some analysts expect stepped-up intervention.
“Slowly but surely, we may get nudged into providing more direct military aid in a clandestine fashion,” said Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, specializing in the military and security affairs. He and other analysts say the ambiguous nature of the conflict – a “highly complex, sectarian civil war in which it’s very hard to understand who is doing what and why” – makes it easier for Obama to resist heavy engagement.
In Jordan in particular, White said, Obama is likely to hear that for the beleaguered kingdom, “the refugee problem is getting worse. The potential for an Islamist spillover is getting worse. He’s very likely to hear that more needs to be done to get the war over.”
The pressure is growing for some way to secure the weapons, said David Ottaway, a senior scholar at the Wilson Center who’s a former Washington Post Cairo bureau chief.
“If there’s any indication of the government using chemical weapons, both Israel and the U.S. are pretty much committed to going in and stopping that,” he said.