Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who is scheduled to attend the meeting, said Thursday that the hope is to get “everybody on the same page with respect to what post-Assad might look like — commitment to diversity, pluralism, democracy, inclusivity, protection of minority rights — [and] that they would be open to the negotiating process to a political settlement.”
The outside supporters say they want a post-Assad government that is nonsectarian and inclusive. But the Obama administration is less certain than its European allies that lethal aid is the answer, preferring to continue pushing for a political agreement.
“We continue to weigh the risk that any weapons we might contribute that would make a real difference could wind up in the hands of extremists — and come back to hurt us and our partners in the region,” said Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council. “Other countries are making their own decisions.”
Britain and France are pushing the European Union to let an arms embargo on Syria expire at the end of May. Although Britain has not made a final decision to supply weapons, “we want to send a message to the [Assad] regime that bad things are certain to come,” said Alistair Burt, a senior British Foreign Office official who met with Obama administration officials in Washington this week.
In the region, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates believe that Qatar and, to a lesser extent, Turkey have failed to draw a sharp enough line between their aid to “moderate” opposition fighting groups and extremist rebel organizations such as Jabhat al-Nusra.
“They want to take Bashar out at any cost and deal with the day after, the day after,” said one senior Arab official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal disputes in the region.
One of the chief beneficiaries of these divisions may be Assad, who has retained the loyalty of minority Syrians, including members of his Alawite sect and Christians, by warning that the majority Sunnis will take revenge against them and turn the country over to al-Qaeda.
“We have no choice but victory,” Assad said in a Syrian television interview Wednesday. “If we don’t win, Syria will be finished, and I don’t think this is a choice for any citizen in Syria.”
As international and Syrian opposition players prepare to meet in Istanbul, internal debate continues in Washington. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers this week that he found the situation on the ground in Syria more confusing than ever and has had second thoughts about his recommendation last year that Obama increase assistance to opposition fighters.
Kerry is likely to announce additional U.S. humanitarian assistance this weekend, senior U.S. and European officials said, and the administration may move forward with what one European official called “edgier” nonlethal support in the form of body armor and night-vision goggles.
DeYoung reported from Washington.