WASHINGTON – Despite growing alarm over the Syrian government’s military advances, Obama administration officials are split over whether to arm the country’s rebel forces or make other military moves that would deepen U.S. involvement in the conflict.
President Barack Obama’s top national security advisers met at the White House on Wednesday to air their differences. The administration’s caution persists despite its nearly two-year-old demand that President Bashar Assad step down, its vows to help the besieged Syrian rebels on the ground and its threats to respond to any chemical weapons use.
U.S. officials had hoped this week to reach a decision on arming the rebels to halt the violence and motivate the government and the opposition to hold peace talks. But they are still uncertain whether that’s the best way to reshape a war that now includes Hezbollah and Iranian fighters backing Assad’s armed forces, and al-Qaida-linked extremists backing the rebellion.
“Nobody wins in Syria the way things are going,” Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters Wednesday after meeting with British Foreign Secretary William Hague. “The people lose and Syria as a country loses. And what we have been pushing for, all of us involved in this effort, is a political solution that ends the violence, saves Syria, stops the killing and destruction of the entire nation.”
Despite increased support in Congress and the administration for lethal aid, officials said those closest to the president are divided on whether to begin providing Syria’s armed opposition with weapons or to consider more drastic steps such as using U.S. airpower to ground Assad’s gunships and jets. The officials spoke ahead of Wednesday’s meeting at the White House on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly on the private talks. Kerry, too, said he wouldn’t predict the outcome of the discussions.
Obama’s moves throughout the 27-month civil war, from political support for the opposition to nonlethal aid for its more moderate fighters, have occurred in close concert with America’s partners in Europe. All agree at this point that the efforts haven’t done enough. After meeting Kerry at the State Department, Hague also stressed the need for a political solution to end the fighting that has now killed some 80,000 people, without outlining how his government might contribute.
Kerry, who postponed a trip this week to Israel and three other Mideast countries to participate in the White House talks, is believed to be among the most forward-leaning members of Obama’s national security leadership. Since becoming America’s top diplomat in February, he has spoken regularly about the need to change Assad’s calculation that he can win the war militarily, if only to get him into serious discussions with the opposition about establishing a transitional government. Assad’s stunning military success last week at Qusair, near the Lebanese border, and preparations for offensives against Homs and Aleppo have made the matter more urgent.
Obama was flying from Massachusetts to Florida on Wednesday and did not participate in Wednesday’s meeting. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and several other top aides of the president were expected to attend.
Officials said some at the White House, the Pentagon and in the intelligence community remained hesitant about providing weapons, ammunition or other lethal support to a rebellion increasingly defined by extremists who, along with Assad, have turned a political insurrection into a sectarian war. Instead, they’ve focused on nonlethal support, such as Wednesday’s decision by the Treasury Department to ease restrictions on Syrian telecommunications, agricultural and petroleum transactions that benefit the opposition.
“We have refocused our efforts on figuring out what to do to help the opposition on the ground,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters, citing the battle at Qusair as well as the influx of Lebanese Hezbollah and other foreign fighters as reasons for why the U.S. was rethinking its approach.
Even if nothing is decided this week, officials said the U.S., Britain and France, who together spearheaded the international intervention that helped overthrow Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, were trying to coordinate a common approach before Obama meets with his colleagues at next week’s G-8 gathering of world leaders. Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad’s most powerful military and political backer, also will be present at the Northern Ireland summit.
White House press secretary Jay Carney would only say Wednesday that the U.S. was “constantly evaluating the situation in Syria and the options available.”
Nothing, however, seems to be happening in Washington — or in London or Paris — fast enough to help Syria’s rebels.
Desperate for weapons, even more so with an estimated 5,000 Hezbollah guerrillas propping up Assad’s forces, the opposition is warning that Western inaction will mean that al-Qaida-linked and other militants will increasingly take over the rebellion.
On Wednesday, activists said Syrian rebels battled Shiites in a village in the country’s east, killing more than 60 people, including civilians. Earlier this week, a 15-year-old boy was executed in public by Islamist rebel fighters in the city of Aleppo for taking the Muslim Prophet Muhammad’s name in vain.
Finding a shared Syria strategy among the U.S., Britain and France is no easy matter. The British and French governments are at least as divided as the Americans on what is the best course of action and have told their fellow European Union members they won’t send any arms to Syria before August. And British Prime Minister David Cameron has promised British lawmakers a House of Commons debate before any such action.
Approving lethal aid, however, brings with it an assortment of new challenges for the administration and its allies. They would then have to decide what weapons to provide, whom to give them to, what training to offer and who should do the training, U.S. and Western officials said. One Western official involved in strategy rejected the notion that weapons and ammunitions shortages were even the problem, citing poor military strategy and the inability of Syria’s fractured opposition to coordinate effectively against Assad’s more disciplined army.