As the death toll in Syria’s civil war has mounted in recent months, many rebels have wondered why the U.S. government is not doing more to aid their cause in the drawn-out bloody conflict, now entering its 20th month.
Despite calling for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to step down and imposing sanctions on his regime, U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration has so far ignored the rebels’ requests for military help, mainly in the form of anti-aircraft weapons and no-fly zones to protect the country from Assad’s blistering aerial attacks.
Some rebels and their allies suspect that the hotly-contested U.S. elections played a part in America’s reluctance to get involved. “We want things to happen more quickly with the United States,” said one Turkish official earlier this year, as the country’s own calls for intervention went unanswered. “But the U.S. has elections now, and they want to operate on their own timeline.”
It’s an old truism in American politics: election season puts tough decisions on hold. But whether or not the looming vote provided the real impetus behind the administration’s Syria policy, Syrians have clearly grown frustrated with Obama. (Salman Shaikh, the head of the Brooking Institute’s Doha Center, points out that U.S. policy has been cautious and biased toward the status quo in Syria since well before Assad took power.) And in the lead-up to election night, some rebels even declared their preference for Republican challenger Mitt Romney. “I hope Romney wins,” a top rebel commander told The Guardian newspaper on Tuesday.
“We want him to help us get weapons.”
But analysts said that any immediate change to policy on Syria after the election is unlikely. “I don’t think it will be on a list of the priorities for a new administration in the immediate aftermath of the election,” says Steven Heydemann, a Middle East expert at the United States Institute for Peace, who has been coordinating with members of the opposition on transition talks.
Issues such as the opposition’s disunity and lack of leadership, and the threat of extremists in the rebel ranks, are still no closer to being solved.
For Obama, the Syrian conflict has been fraught with political pitfalls from the start. “There’s been a hesitation to go out on a limb on Syria,” says James Prince of the Democracy Council in Los Angeles. “It’s such a messy place, and politically the risks are very high. The issue of picking winners and losers scares the crap out of folks in Washington. They’re afraid to back the wrong horse, or to help some of these emerging groups who may end up having members of al Qaeda.”
Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, notes that Obama’s promise to end the war in Iraq helped define his first presidential campaign. Since then, America’s long economic crisis and Afghanistan fatigue have combined to produce a cautious approach to the new conflagrations in the Middle East brought on by the Arab Spring. “I think the Democratic Party base is averse to intervention of any kind. So you have domestic limitations,” Tabler says. “All these things have led them to address the situation on the ground much more slowly than they would have otherwise.”
And Syria’s humanitarian tragedy—in which at least 36,000 people have died, according to activist estimates, and hundreds of thousands more made refugees—hasn’t led to support for intervention among the American people. “I think the administration continues to believe that there is very weak domestic support for further engagement,” says Heydemann of the U.S. Institute for Peace.
The Syrian opposition often cites the uprising in Libya as an example, wondering why American chose to intervene in the fight against Ghaddafi yet refuses to help oust Assad, despite the president’s cruel assault on his own people. Yet international opinion was far more cohesive on Libya than on Syria, whose civil war has bitterly divided the United Nations Security Council, with China and longtime Syria ally Russia refusing to condemn the Assad regime. Such rifts make it highly unlikely that the United States would mount a military intervention, however limited, or even openly arm the rebels.
And the recent attack on the U.S. diplomatic compounds in Libya showed how risky American involvement in a rebellion and its aftermath can be. There, on the night of Sept. 11, a mob—likely led by local extremists—attacked and killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, who had been a tireless supporter of the Libyan rebels in their uprising against Col. Muammar Gaddafi.
The assault crystallized the inherent dangers in getting involved with another country’s regime change—and the political ramifications when things go wrong. Both Obama and Romney suffered over their handling of the attack: the GOP candidate was criticized for slamming the White House before the full details of the attack emerged, and Benghazi turned into a major stumbling block for Romney during the third presidential debate. Meanwhile, the Obama administration struggled with troubling questions that have lingered about the night of the attack and that became persistent campaign fodder for Republicans.
Analysts say a more aggressive American approach to shoring up the opposition leadership may now be underway. After months of squabbling inside the fractious Syrian National Council in Istanbul, the U.S. has taken the lead in initiating talks among the various opposition leaders this week in Doha. Qatar has been an avid ally of the opposition, and the conference is seen as America’s most overt commitment yet towards trying to shape a more credible and effective alternative to Assad. “It’s a bold move,” says Tabler, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “This is the first time they’ve really put their weight behind something like this.”
The Doha talks—which analyst Heydemann calls a “dramatic and risky move”—might be a measure of America’s likely new approach: reaching out to the opposition, and then to armed rebel groups in slow but deliberate steps. “I think that the stars are not aligned in favor of a dramatic shift in U.S. policy toward Syria,” Heydemann says. “What we’re likely to see, in the best-case scenario, are modest and incremental steps toward more engagement with the opposition—still short of providing weapons, still short of direct intervention, and still short of no-fly zones. But some of the building blocks for moving in that direction will be put in place.”“I think it will be done perhaps slower than most people would like—certainly than most Syrians would like,” agrees Shaikh, of the Brookings Institute’s Doha Center. “It’s not going to be that easy. It’s not going to be that quick.”