President Obama is unlikely to shift his stance against the expansion of a U.S. role in Syria’s civil war, despite a death toll topping 60,000 and acknowledgment that key members of his national security staff favored a plan first proposed in June to arm the Syrian rebels.
U.S. officials said that the issue was shelved in October after an extended “red team” analysis by the CIA concluded that the limited-range weaponry the administration was comfortable providing would not have “tipped the scales” for the opposition.
Syrian opposition forces already had sufficient quantities of light weaponry from other outside sources and raids of government depots, the analysis determined. The question of providing shoulder-launched missiles to shoot down government aircraft, officials said, was never considered.
It remained unclear whether senior officials who backed the plan, first proposed during the summer by then-CIA director David H. Petraeus, were comfortable with President Obama’s decision not to move ahead with it. Some U.S. and outside experts have argued that the provision of weapons to selected rebel groups, even if they are superfluous, could help empower and build loyalty among pro-Western factions.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress Thursday they had backed the proposal to arm the rebels. Former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton was also said to be in favor of the plan.
Officials from several allied governments, who spoke on the condition of anonymity about relations with Washington, said that they were convinced last summer that the administration was moving in a new direction, with the majority of top national security officials in favor of providing weapons. When a change in policy did not occur by September, many concluded that Obama wanted to wait until after he was re-elected.
U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity about internal administration deliberations, said the subject has not been revisited since the decision was made and that there were no plans to reconsider it.
But the division exposed by Panetta and Dempsey was rare among the tight circle of Obama national security advisers. Some officials said the divisions were not particularly deep and that enthusiasm for the plan was tempered by the risks it posed. Administration officials have voiced increasing concern about infiltration of rebel ranks by Islamic extremists, including some affiliated with al-Qaeda.
In the case of the mobile surface-to-air missiles, called MANPADS, one official said, “We wouldn’t even consider it, because God forbid they would be used against an Israeli aircraft.”
Israel’s air attack last month against a weapons convoy en route from Syria to its Hezbollah allies in Syria was criticized by several regional governments opposed to the Syrian regime and by some rebel groups.
White House press secretary Jay Carney stressed the administration’s caution Friday. “We have had to be very careful,” he said. “We don't want any weapons to fall into the wrong hands and potentially further endanger the Syrian people, our ally Israel or the United States. We also need to make sure that any support we are providing actually makes a difference in pressuring [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad.”
Of those who favored some level of weapons supply during last year’s discussions, only Dempsey will remain on Obama’s national security team in the second term. Petraeus resigned as CIA director last fall before the agency analysis was completed, and Clinton left last week. Panetta will depart the administration soon.
On Friday, new Secretary of State John F. Kerry would not give his view of the debate or whether he took a position on it as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But he said the U.S. approach to Syria is under discussion now, a possible reference to an interagency policy review this spring.
“We are evaluating now,” Kerry said at the State Department. “We’re taking a look at what steps, if any — diplomatic, particularly — might be able to be taken in an effort to try to reduce that violence and deal with the situation.”
Speaking with reporters a day before she left office last week, Clinton decried the spiral of death and desperation in Syria but said she felt she had done all she could “sitting where I sit.”
She declined an opportunity to say whether there was anything specific she wished had been done differently and sketched a grim picture of the future for Syria.
“The worst kind of predictions about what could happen internally and spilling over the borders of Syria are certainly within the realm of the possible now,” she said.
Asked about the likelihood of U.S. arms supplies to the rebels, however, Clinton said: “That decision has not been made.”
Clinton stressed caution about sending arms that could fall into the wrong hands. The administration has tacitly approved arms shipments by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, while urging that the recipients be fully vetted.
“Sitting here today, I can’t tell you that we’ve been entirely successful in that,” Clinton said. “There are those who are supplying weapons and money for weapons, who really don’t care who gets it as long as they are against” Assad’s regime, Clinton said. Those nations “have the view that once Assad is gone, then we’ll deal with the consequences of these other groups who are now armed and funded. That’s not our view.”
Clinton was a chief advocate of a U.S. plan to empower Syrian opposition figures who commanded greater legitimacy inside the country, in hopes of giving Syrians a viable political alternative to Assad. She moved last year to confer U.S. bona fides on the new group, effectively usurping a group of expatriates who had laid early claim to the opposition mantle.
The political shift was intended to increase pressure on Syrian ally Russia, which is continuing to arm Assad’s army. But it appeared separate from any expansion of U.S. military involvement in the nearly two-year-old conflict and from the decisions of U.S. partners Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey to ship heavier weapons to Syrian fighters.
U.S. allies and partners in Europe and the Middle East have been more willing to consider direct involvement in Syria but not without a sign from the United States that it is willing to put “skin in the game,” according to a senior Arab official.
“You have to be a full partner,” the official said. “If the United States begins to supply weapons, then everybody will line up behind them.”