During the campaign, Mitt Romney vowed that as president he would do more than the Obama administration to support the Syrian rebels. Rebels who “share our values” would “obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad’s tanks helicopters and fighter jets,” Romney said during a speech on October 8. Even though the rebels will never get the chance to hold President Romney to his word, the question remains: Will the U.S. escalate its involvement in the Syrian civil war?
Several recent developments in the almost two-year-old civil war suggest that Washington could shift course. First, the rebels are getting bolder and better at fighting. One brigade took over an oil field in eastern Iraq. Several brigades in the north have been collaborating on a spectacular series of attacks, including Monday’s suicide car bombing of a government outpost that killed 50 soldiers. In Damascus today, rebels fired mortars at Assad’s palace (they missed, but it was a bold attempt), and they assassinated a judge who supported the regime.
Second, it’s becoming clear that jihadist brigades are better equipped and better supported than other rebel groups. They receive “the lion’s share” of weapons from donors in Qatar and Saudi Arabia. These are not the people Washington wants to be well armed.
Third, the Syrian National Council is in disarray. Syrian dissident Riad Seif, supported by the U.S. government, put forward two proposals for reforming the Syrian rebel leadership last night but was rebuffed both times. Despite hours of debate, the delegates didn’t even vote on Seif’s plans. The likelihood of a cohesive and representative SNC leadership emerging from the Qatar meeting grows ever dimmer.
Fourth, David Cameron, who stopped at a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan during a tour of the Middle East, suggested publicly that Assad should be allowed free passage out of Syria if this would stop the violence. Cameron hopes this would prevent what UN Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi recently called the Somalization of Syria: the devolution of the country into a lawless space controlled by warlords.
In Via Meadia‘s view, there are very few fighters in Syria who “share our values”, as Romney put it. Meanwhile, Washington has signalled that it can’t work with the SNC in its current form. The group is obviously too detached from the fighting to be called the real leadership of the Syrian rebellion. Washington has also (so far) rebuffed calls for a no-fly zone in Syrian airspace, “safe zones” on the ground, providing weapons directly to the rebels, or sending in American troops.
So what can Washington and its allies do, exactly? It sounds like Turkey will request that Patriot missiles from NATO be stationed on its border with Syria. This and other signs of a Turkish military buildup might threaten Assad, but they won’t really help the rebels. David Cameron, in addition to suggesting that Assad be allowed out of the country, said that the UK and its allies should try to communicate directly with rebel brigades.
It’s a bad situation with no good policy options for President Obama. But the pressure for Washington to take a more active approach is building as the scene on the ground changes by the day.