June 14, 2013

Analysts: Obama is gambling on uncertain allies in new Syria push

After concluding that President Bashar Assad’s regime has used chemical weapons against rebel forces, the White House pledged Friday to send more military and financial aid to Syrian opposition groups to make them “as strong as possible.” But whether they’ll ever be strong enough to topple Assad or assert themselves to govern a post-Assad Syria are unanswered questions.

For the past two years, the Obama administration has struggled to identify credible partners among Assad’s many opponents and has worked to help shape them into a transitional authority that’s prepared to take charge should the Assad regime collapse. What’s emerged instead on the military side is an array of rebel militias heavily infiltrated by radical Islamists and al Qaida loyalists with no central command. On the political side, the opposition is a fractious coalition of exiles who can’t agree on a leader and who have little, if any, legitimacy in Syria.

Neither makes an ideal partner, according to analysts who monitor the conflict, and yet the administration has no real alternative as U.S. involvement deepens in a crisis that threatens the entire Middle East. The Obama administration’s announcement Thursday that it would send more military aid to the rebel Supreme Military Council, which is led by defected Gen. Salim Idriss, tethers the United States to the crisis in a new way, analysts said. For months, the administration has been pivoting quietly from the unpopular, ineffective Syrian Opposition Coalition toward Idriss, who’s openly admitted that a lack of cohesion, training and weapons plagues his forces.

In the conference call in which he announced the chemical weapons assessment, White House foreign policy adviser Benjamin Rhodes portrayed Idriss’ council as “the military option on the ground.” In reality, Idriss boasts very little authority over the loose confederation of militias known as the Free Syrian Army and none at all over the al Qaida-affiliated fighters who’ve proved to be the most effective Assad foes. “Idriss doesn’t have an army himself to speak of, but he’s the public face and is becoming their cheerleader and persuader in chief,” said Salman Shaikh, the director of the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center in Qatar. “The U.S. didn’t really find their men until they found Idriss and those around him. It’s not perfect by any stretch, but we have the conditions now for this kind of announcement from the White House.”

Analysts say a chief concern is that with the U.S. so overtly backing one side of a civil war, it’ll be dragged into an escalating level of support: from light arms to anti-tank weapons to a no-fly zone and so on. And there are no guarantees that the U.S.-backed rebels will remain loyal to American interests or that shipments of heavier weapons won’t slip into the hands of the Nusra Front, which is openly tied to al Qaida, or Ahrar al Sham, which shares Nusra’s ideology, if not its loyalty to al Qaida.

“It’s definitely dangerous territory, and it’s going to be hard to moderate now,” said Shawn Brimley, the vice president of the Center for a New American Security and a former strategic planning director on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council staff. “We need to resist the powerful gravitational pull of another war in the Middle East,” Brimley said. Brimley was involved in the White House planning for the NATO-led intervention in Libya, and he said he’d watched as the operation began as a humanitarian mission but turned into a campaign to remove then-leader Moammar Gadhafi. In Libya, as in Syria, he said, the United States was working with exiled opposition figures and “when push came to shove, they didn’t have any tactical push on the ground with the rebels.”

Brimley said he agreed with the administration’s decision to take more action in Syria, but he urged caution about the breadth of that assistance, especially when the U.S. partners amount to a “constellation of rebel actors, a constantly shifting mosaic of personalities.” That’s also an apt description for the Syrian Opposition Coalition, which is known for its public infighting and members who resign with great fanfare only to show up at the next meeting. After spending more than a week squabbling, coalition members added about 50 names to their roster in a bid to dilute the Muslim Brotherhood’s domination with a liberal bloc.

However, the members are still deadlocked over picking a leader and forming an interim government, one of the main reasons for a delay in U.S.-Russian plans for a peace conference in Geneva next month. Once hyped as a last-ditch effort for a political transition, the peace conference now looks increasingly unlikely, especially with the new chemical-weapons charges.

Behind the scenes, U.S. officials are exasperated with the coalition members, but very little of the frustration bubbles up publicly. Rhodes, who announced the new assistance, said Thursday that the administration was comfortable working with the opposition coalition, an odd assessment given that U.S. officials told McClatchy only two weeks ago that the State Department was so fed up with the coalition’s lack of progress that it was considering diverting millions of dollars in U.S. funds earmarked for the group.

Of the money that’s been delivered to the opposition, very little has gone to the coalition itself, the officials said. “It’s obviously been a very unstable organization,” one official said then, requesting anonymity in order to speak freely. Unless the unarmed opposition gets its act together soon, analysts said, it might find itself sidelined as the Obama administration attaches itself more visibly to the armed wing. “At best, they’re part of that structure,” said Shaikh, of Brookings Doha. “At worse, they’ll become sort of irrelevant.” Steven Thomma contributed to this report.

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