Washington Playing A Waiting Game on Syria

Although the US is providing indirect support to Syrian rebels, it it doesn't actually want Bashar al-Assad to fall quickly for fear he would be replaced by radical Islamists, writes Asli Aydintasbas.

al-monitor US Secretary of State John Kerry talks to reporters aboard his plane on a flight from Istanbul to Brussels, April 21, 2013. Some say the US is taking too casual an approach on ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Photo by REUTERS/Evan Vucci.

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us involvement in the middle east, us, assad

Apr 23, 2013

On the occasion of the meeting of the Friends of Syria group, US Secretary of State John Kerry made his third visit to Turkey. What would a normal newspaper reader think? That Washington is doing everything possible to get rid of President Bashar al-Assad. In this meeting, the Americans promised the Syrian opposition $123 million in assistance. They made tough speeches. The Americans have been sending weapons to the Syrian opposition, if not directly, through third countries. A total of 250 American soldiers are now based in Jordan.

You would think that the US had pressed the button for action, but you would be wrong. On the contrary, Washington is basing its calculations not on ending the Syrian civil war tomorrow but on the probability of it lasting for long time.

The assistance provided to the opposition is not enough to help it win a victory that would bring the end of Assad. This is important to note. It is as if the US does not want the toppling of Assad immediately. They seem to want to stretch it out and in that time strengthen the “secular and democratic elements” within the opposition.

I am not the one saying all this. Senior American officials say it openly. Senior US bureaucrats talking to The Wall Street Journal last week openly and clearly said they “don’t want a military victory by the opposition at this time,” because they were afraid “the good guys won’t have the upper hand.”

Americans complain about the fragmentation of the Free Syrian Army and how they don’t know the opposition. They fear radical groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra like the plague. Officials speaking to The Wall Street Journal said a hasty toppling of Assad will “reduce the chances of a diplomatic solution” and will damage Syria’s national institutions.

There is more. For the past two years, proposals by countries such as France and Turkey to set up safe zones in northern Syria where refugees can seek shelter have been persistently rejected by Washington. The Obama administration similarly has not welcomed proposals for a no-fly zone, the provision of heavy weapons to the opposition, training on heavy weapons and the creation of a security corridor, etc. They simply do not want to get involved. Turkish intelligence services say the Assad regime is using about 200 long-range missiles, including Scuds. These missiles have targeted Daraa, Raqqah, Aleppo and Azaz, the latter of which is very close to the Turkish border.

Nevertheless, Washington is still saying “no” to the use of Patriot missiles deployed in Turkey to provide a shield to part of the Syrian airspace or to the use of its drones in the region to hit the Scud batteries in Damascus.

This is not all. Never mind Kerry’s tough rhetoric in Istanbul, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, while briefing Congress last week, listed the options available to President Barack Obama to bring down Assad. Accompanied by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, Hagel said they were giving food and medical assistance to some of the opposition, but beyond that the situation in Syria was more complicated than last year. Dempsey opposed giving weapons to the opposition on the grounds that “I am not sure we can find the right people.”

What I want to say here is that despite the big show staged in Istanbul [Sunday], the US is not ready to see Assad off. I understand from all the people I speak to in Washington that the US believes this affair will continue for a few more years. Such a burden is not easy for Turkey to carry. It is not ethical.

The only thing that can change this scene is for Erdogan to persuade Obama “to do something” when they meet next month in the White House or for the opposition to score spectacular success in the field. Otherwise we are on a long and bloody road.

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