The president will hear plenty about Syria when he steps off Air Force One in the Middle East this week, very likely facing new pressure from worried allies to help rebels oust the regime but carrying no change in U.S. policy that could calm fears of the crisis spreading across borders and destabilizing the region.
The United States’ Syria policy has remained unchanged for some time. President Barack Obama has resisted using the American military in the effort and isn’t planning any change to a U.S. approach that’s had little effect in aiding rebels’ efforts to dislodge Syrian President Bashar Assad. Analysts say it’s unclear what message Obama can convey as the conflict hits the two-year milestone Friday with no end in sight and no good policy options left for the administration.
The trip is about “managing expectations, managing the problems, not necessarily offering solutions to these problems," said Haim Malka, deputy director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research center in Washington.
U.S. officials failed to imagine that Assad could cling to power this long. Their mantra that his “days are numbered" was long ago rendered moot with the death toll in Syria rising to 70,000. “All this conversation about post-Assad Syria, it seems almost unreal," said Joel Charny, a vice president at InterAction, an umbrella group for international aid agencies that have been operating in and around Syria.
As the crisis shows little sign of abating, Israel and Jordan have become increasingly anxious. Israel fears the rise of jihadists, the possibility that Syria’s rich cache of weapons might fall into the hands of Hezbollah, the Lebanese military group, and the general disintegration of Syria.
Jordan, already squeezed by a poor economy, is facing a mounting humanitarian crisis: More than 400,000 Syrian refugees have fled over the border to Jordan, a country with a population of just 6 million. Some estimates say the number might hit 1 million by the close of the year.
The White House fears that sending weapons to the rebels might further destabilize the region. Critics say the U.S. approach has been marked by miscalculations and waffling that’s exacerbated the conflict and led to an anti-American backlash from the opposition the U.S. professed to support.
For Jordan, that strikes at fear that goes beyond the refugee camps on its borders. As the Syrian regime deteriorates, and Islamists in Syria grow emboldened, the Islamic opposition in Jordan might become similarly emboldened and push for further reforms, said Marwan Muasher, a former foreign minister of Jordan who’s a vice president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Muasher said he “understands perfectly the administration’s reluctance to do much on Syria," noting that there’s no domestic pressure in the U.S. for intervening. He warned, though, that the fear of not wanting to arm individuals who might become terrorists might become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“The more you wait, the more you radicalize the opposition, the more you disintegrate the country and the more you destabilize the neighbors like Jordan and Lebanon," he said.
Calls for intervention
Obama’s 2008 Republican election opponent, Arizona Sen. John McCain, marked Friday’s anniversary of the uprising by renewing his call for intervention, saying the U.S. should not “stand idle," but impose a no-fly zone or attack Assad’s aircraft. The risks of intervening, he said, are “real and serious, but the risks of continuing to do nothing are worse."
Administration officials have spent millions to build up a credible, pluralistic opposition coalition to little avail: The leaders are at loggerheads over competing ideologies and are derided by Syrians as exiles riding out the revolt in five-star hotels. They’ve failed to pick a prime minister or agree on whether to negotiate with the regime, much less form a viable government in waiting.
And the leader of the U.S.-backed coalition, Mouaz al-Khatib, has expressed support for the militant rebel Nusra Front faction, which the U.S. has designated as part of the al-Qaida in Iraq terrorist group.
Israeli officials wouldn’t telegraph what they intend to tell Obama, but Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, said they wanted Assad to go. “We understand there’s a growing jihadist element among the opposition," he said. “But Assad’s departure will deliver a tremendous blow to Hezbollah and Assad’s patron in Tehran."
Meanwhile, on Saturday, one of the highest-ranking military officers yet to abandon Assad defected to Jordan. Maj. Gen. Mohammed Ezz al-Din Khalouf announced his defection in a video aired on the Al-Arabiya satellite channel. He also said fighters from Hezbollah were fighting in Syria in “more than one place," but did not give further details.
The video showed him sitting next to his son, Capt. Ezz al-Din Khalouf, who defected with him. The twin blows illustrated the slowly spreading cracks appearing in Assad’s regime as well as its deepening international isolation. While few analysts expect the civil war between Assad’s forces and rebels seeking his ouster to end soon, most say it appears impossible for the 4-decade-old regime to continue to rule.