Is Obama Posturing on Syria (Again)?

By Michael Weiss

If the Obama administration is planning to run tide-turning weapons to the Syrian rebels, then Hadi al-Bahra requires more than words of encouragement to believe it’s true. “During this revolution, we learned the lesson that you cannot say ‘grapes’ until you have them in your basket,” al-Bahra told me from his headquarters in Istanbul, sounding about as tired I would be if I were in his position.

Al-Bahra is (or was) the Syrian National Coalition’s chief negotiator at the predictably fruitless and now indefinitely postponed Geneva II conference, which was designed to augur the post-Assad era and establish a “transitional government” for Syria. Instead, the still regnant Assad used it as yet another American-furnished opportunity to stall, lie, consolidate his gains on the battlefield, and even arrest the in-country family members of the Coalition’s negotiating team. Al-Bahra wasn’t surprised by any of it. “So long as the regime believes there’s a military solution, they will not act seriously on the political front. Russia and Iran are both not ready to press hard on them.”

Iran’s role

Does he think, as so many onlookers of Washington’s policymaking now do, that the reason Obama still refuses to militarily confront Assad is because he doesn’t want to jeopardize Tehran’s cooperation on the P5+1’s newly-inked interim nuclear deal? (Iran considers Syria one of its own provinces, and is now more or less controlling Assad’s war brief.) It certainly appears that way. “The US has to think strategically about its position in the world,” al-Bahra said. “Linking both issues together to make Iran better behave on the Syrian front is something the US could try to achieve. But doing the opposite: using Syria as a card to compromise with the [nuclear] negotiations would be very bad. The current stated position is that these two issues are separate.”

Russia’s defiance

Of course, it’s not just Iran that has benefited from Washington’s failure to creatively link foreign policy crises. Anne Patterson, the Assistant Secretary of State, admitted on March 26 that Russia has only increased the “quantity and quality” of arms supplies to Syria since Vladimir Putin brokered the chemical disarmament deal last September, and since Russia acceded to a UN Security Council resolution last month condemning the regime’s use of barrel bombs and insisting on access for humanitarian aid into the country. In particular, Moscow is running convoys of spare parts for tanks, armored vehicles and helicopters, from which so many of those devastating barrel bombs are still being dropped on civilians. “This is the point where I don’t understand the politics of the USA,” al-Bahra said. “There is a chance to reach a compromise using the Russian invasion of Crimea and linking it to the Syrian case. But the US treats each case distinctly.”

Even where Russia has ostensibly cooperated with the United States, it hasn’t. The UN’s humanitarian chief Valerie Amos recently found that a mere 6% of aid has been let into besieged areas since that resolution was passed; other human rights abuses, such as sexual assaults, also continue apace. “Of course, the regime has not done any of the things in Resolution 2139. They’re using air raids, barrel bombs, and they’re stealing medicine out of shipments intended for opposition areas and redistributing them to loyalist areas. A guy committing a crime on a daily basis against the Security Council, and against the will of the international community — and here you’re standing and doing nothing. The more you do nothing, the more Assad will resort to extreme action.”

MANPADS?

Perhaps because it's spring again in the District of Confusion, there’s been a discernible thaw in rhetoric. Rumors are that the administration might itself be resorting to minimal or even moderate action on Syria. Following Obama’s much-scrutinized meeting last week with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, there has been renewed media speculation about the possibility of running man-portable air defense systems, or MANPADs, to vetted rebels in southern Syria.

The contingency that this president will ever authorize such a program is remote, but Riyadh apparently believes otherwise. According to a well-placed source close to the kingdom’s security apparatus, the Saudis are now convinced that the White House is warming to this option owing to a troika of risk mitigating conditions put forward by themselves. These are: Only a handful of MANPADs would enter the country; they’d have a remote deactivation mechanism to render them inoperable in the event that any went missing or fell into the hands of jihadists; the only rebels wielding them would be former Syrian expats who have been seconded by Western intelligence agencies and therefore “our men on the inside.” The Saudis think that by summer, a major rebel offensive will be in the offing in southern Syria.

Nevertheless, for al-Bahra, this is another case of not counting one’s grapes prematurely. “We know that the missiles are available now in Turkey and Jordan,” he said, “but they are still not with the right people, the fighters. The US has to give the green light for other countries to supply them, and so far it hasn’t.”

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Michael Weiss is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the Institute of Modern Russia. He tweets at @michaeldweiss

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