Josh Rogin reports: “Syrian opposition leaders of all stripes will convene in Qatar next week to form a new leadership body to subsume the opposition Syrian National Council, which is widely viewed as ineffective, consumed by infighting, and little respected on the ground. . . . The State Department has been heavily involved in crafting the new council as part of its effort oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and build a more viable and unified opposition. In September, for instance, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with a group of Syrian activists who were flown in to New York for a high-level meeting that has not been reported until now.”
For the better part of a year, conservative critics of Obama’s Syria policy have been urging that we pursue this course. In August, Mitt Romney publicly urged that “‘the United States should work with partners to organize and arm Syrian opposition groups’ and campaign advisers assert that a Romney White House would take a more aggressive leadership role in the process,” the Washington Times reported. Back in February former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams was urging that we engage with, support and arm the Syrian opposition. As early as November 2011 the conservative Foreign Policy Initiative was calling for the administration to “intensify its political engagement with the various anti-regime groups both inside and outside of Syria. A key objective would be to help empower the moderate members of the Syrian opposition vis-à-vis the Islamist elements.”
Some conservatives are bemused by the administration’s belated reaction. One Obama critic e-mails me, “The thing I love about this administration is that they show no desire to lead, and then when they finally do, it’s as if they bloody invented the idea of American leadership. The second is that they get into the game of playing who’s on first in Syria in the way that…. Dare I say it? They directly criticized when so many engaged in the same game of picking winners in Iraq. Bottom line? They’ve gotten into the question of Syria’s future too late, and with too little, and the result will be that the next president will have to clean up the mess they left.”
Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies tells me, “ This measure should be commended, but it certainly begs the question ‘what took you so long?’ For 18 months, the Obama Administration’s policy has essentially been to keep the Syrian opposition at arm’s length. But that’s in the past, according to this report. And I think we know why. First of all, the death toll of 30,000 plus in Syria is simply too high to ignore. And with sectarian tensions rising, there is only one way this conflict can go: south. And speaking of south, last week’s foiled terrorist plot in Jordan included jihadist elements from, you guessed it, Syria. In other words, the Syrian problem is spilling over. And not only into Jordan, but also into neighboring Iraq and Lebanon.” He argues, “With Syria increasingly looking like a regional problem that cannot be contained, it was time for the administration to wade in. But I now wonder whether it is too late. Sure, we can help bring about the fall of Assad. He’s well on his way. But has the internal dynamic in Syria grown too messy, with Salafis, foreign fighters, Iran and multiple sectarian scores to be settled? The Syria of 18 months ago was likely a much easier nut to crack.”
Other critics doubt that we can influence the situation so long as others are supplying the rebels with arms. One experienced Middle East hand questions what we’re doing in Qatar of all places for the talks. “Qatar? The Qataris are not supporting the same people we are; they back Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist types in the opposition. And it is still the case that ‘our’ guys are getting no arms. So this is a move away from the previous inaction, but is it American leadership?” Another conservative critic who has advised the Romney campaign concurs that “the point is really going to be who is powerful on the ground, not who goes to meetings in Doha.”
If nothing else, Obama’s move exemplifies how reactive and lethargic Obama’s policy in the region has been. We dawdle. We plead for others to join us. When they don’t, the situation worsens. Then we act, half-heartedly and only after forces adverse to U.S. interests have gotten a running start. We begin with preconditions and restrictions on our actions (no arms in the case of Syrian rebels) thereby limiting our effectiveness. And when nefarious elements take hold (e.g. in Libya, Egypt) we either turn a blind eye or declare there is nothing to be done.
When America “leads from behind” our foes capitalize and we wind up looking inept and weak. Someone should ask the president (if he ever takes questions) why he didn’t take a stronger role months and months ago when it could have made a difference.