U.S. Sitting Out the Syria Game
In the run-up to the U.S. presidential election, Washington's regional allies were convinced that the Obama administration's lack of a Syria policy was due to the US president's preoccupation with securing a second term. Once the elections were over, the thinking went, priorities would change and the U.S. would pursue a more robust policy.
There was such desperation for American leadership and a clear U.S. policy that some in the Saudi press were counting days and hours to the election. For instance, Tariq al-Homayed, editor of al-Sharq al-Awsat, waxed hopeful in late September that in 40 days, "all options will be on the table." On the eve of the election, Homayed again wrote that the region "has been in a coma for more than a month because of the US elections... If Obama wins things will be different... In 24 hours, there will be movement and action."
Now that President Obama has been reelected, this hopeful view of a dramatic shift in U.S. policy has resurfaced. The recent formation in Doha of the Syrian National Coalition of Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, and the news of Turkey holding talks with NATO over deploying Patriot missile batteries on its border with Syria, have spurred speculation that the U.S. has finally changed its posture and has adopted a more aggressive Syria policy.
However, this reading is overly hopeful. What's more, it confuses the attempts by Washington's allies to spur it into action with the actual policy thinking of the Obama administration.
When the Turks deliberately leaked the news of their discussions with NATO about the Patriot batteries, the story was seen as a Turkish gambit to establish a de facto no-fly zone in northern Syria. There remains, however, much to be answered about this plan -- assuming it will even come to pass, as Ankara has not yet made an official request.
First off, on the eve of the election, the Turks were told about the continued U.S. unwillingness to pursue the safe haven option. Then last week, the State Department placed the potential deployment of Patriot batteries within a strictly defensive framework, against a possible Syrian attack on Turkey, perhaps with chemical weapons. In fact, the State Department spokesperson, Victoria Nuland, dismissed the prospect of using the Patriot interceptors to set up a no-fly zone on the cheap as mixing "apples and oranges."
More importantly, even should Turkey and NATO go through with this deployment, the rules of engagement, as well as the details of who would man the batteries and who would hold command over them, are all unclear. However, it's safe to say that the White House, which has resisted all attempts by its regional allies to drag it into more involvement, is not likely about to offer the Turks the ability to force its hand on intervention in Syria.
The consistent statements by administration officials, before and after the election, support this conclusion. At best, the U.S. and NATO might deploy the Patriot batteries as a show of commitment to Turkey's security. But Washington will resist any attempt to alter the purpose of this deployment. This way the administration will have appeared to have done something bold, but in reality, the ground rules will have remained unchanged.
Indeed, the administration is standing its ground on the matter of arming the Syrian rebels. For Turkey and Qatar, who were closely involved in the creation of the Syrian National Coalition, the purpose behind this unified opposition front boils down to pressing Washington to agree to provide advanced lethal assistance and to establish a no-fly zone along the border with Turkey.
The first thing the head of the new Syrian coalition called for was "specialized weapons" -- a reference to anti-air systems to counter the Assad regime's airpower. Similarly, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu indicated that this was Ankara's primary concern when he called on the members of the Friends of Syria group to "be more active," adding that with the new unity agreement, "there is no excuse anymore."
Obviously, Davutoglu was directing his statement at the Obama administration, whose excuse for months had been that the Syrian opposition's fragmentation precluded more U.S. involvement.
Yet it is precisely on this central point of military aid that the U.S. position remains unchanged. Remarkably, all recent assertions in the media about a shift in the U.S. approach ran against consistent and explicit statements to the contrary from administration officials, both immediately before and after the election. For instance, in October, the US Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone relayed to the Turks that "no matter what the election results, I do not believe there will be a change in perspective [on Syria]."
The administration also ruled out last month any prospect of supplying the opposition with shoulder-fired anti-air missiles, and was reportedly startled when the British prime minister, David Cameron, floated the possibility of opening the door to arming the rebels last week.
And just in case anyone didn't get the point, in its statement following the formation of the Syrian National Coalition, the State Department made sure to underline that assistance from the U.S. will continue to be of the "non-lethal" variety.
As for the second main demand of a no-fly zone, during the opposition gathering in Doha, the administration's point man on Syria, Ambassador Robert Ford, reportedly emphasized to the rebels-and to their regional backers -- that they should not expect any change in the administration's position on that front.
In the end, therefore, despite leaks regarding a review process of the Syria policy, the pre-election dynamic continues unaltered: U.S. regional allies continue to maneuver to push Washington toward more involvement, while the administration continues to insist on staying out of the game.
Barring an extraordinary development, it seems U.S. policy will remain unchanged for the foreseeable future, to the dismay of U.S. allies who hoped the election would make a difference.