Syria: It requires a two-step strategy


An F/A-18F Super Hornet assigned to the Black Knights of Strike Fighter Squadron 154 prepares to launch from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz on Sept. 3 in the Red Sea. (U.S. Navy/Getty Images)
Walter Pincus
Reporter September 16, 2013

President Obama has led a war-weary United States into playing an increasingly major role in the Syrian civil war during the past year.

In public it’s evolved as a messy, two-step strategy, but as the president said Sunday in an interview on ABC’s “This Week,” “I’m less concerned about style points; I’m much more concerned about getting the policy right.”

We are in Step One, removal of the threat that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime would again use chemical weapons. But complicated as that is, talks are also underway for Step Two, a diplomatic solution to end the fighting through the so-called Geneva II process.

That will prove even more difficult for the United States and its allies to accomplish because it will mean pulling together the various opposition groups. But more on that later.

Obama’s initiatives have always had the broad goal of ending Assad’s bloody regime through diplomatic means. But getting there has required two forms of U.S. military pressure.

In structuring those military approaches, Obama has had to make certain that nothing he ordered could directly or indirectly lead to U.S. “boots on the ground,” a step Americans would never support.

Moving a formidable U.S. force in position to deliver a military strike on Assad’s chemical weapons infrastructure was what got Russia and Syria to agree to the current deal. Keeping those U.S. aircraft carriers, destroyers and aircraft on station where they could carry out the planned operation serves as a U.S. guarantee the military pressure will continue to back up the diplomatic effort.

Difficult as the chemical weapons initiative may seem, fulfilling the goals set for the Geneva II process promise to be even harder.

Put together in late June 2012 in Geneva by the so-called Action Group for Syria, under the auspices of the United Nations, the first goal was: “All parties must recommit to a sustained cessation of armed violence in all its forms.”

What incentive does Assad have to agree to a cease-fire? In this case there is no threat of a U.S. strike to diminish his military power by attacking his aircraft or establishing a no-fly zone. Obama so far has ruled them out.

An April promise for a modest step-up in U.S. training and provision of light arms to vetted, moderate rebel groups was made after the first confirmed reports that Assad had done small, limited chemical attacks. Run through the CIA, that activity was not expected to have much impact on the military balance for at least six months.

In the wake of the Aug. 21 large chemical attack, U.S. military officials testified on Capitol Hill that in addition to a military strike, the Obama administration contemplated vastly increasing military aid and switching it to the Defense Department. That could quickly increase the training and flow of weapons and do it more openly than the CIA.

Whether that takes place remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, the United States and its allies have major problems preparing for any Geneva II conference.

The first would be their ability to get all the military opposition units to stop fighting.

As Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said recently, “A loose but fairly trained federation of roughly 1,200 rebel groups have been continuously fighting to take down the Assad regime since 2011.”

Within that number, most of which are moderate, there are several radical Islamic factions such as the al Qaeda-aligned al-Nusra Front, which Flynn described as “better led, better organized, better armed and better trained than the other groups.” Getting them to stop fighting could be a problem.

Beyond a cease-fire, the Geneva II process contemplates assembling a transitional governing body that would include representatives of the Assad regime and the rebels.

That transitional body would review the Syrian constitution and legal system and draft a new constitution that would be subject to a public vote. It would then, under the approved constitution, prepare for multi-party elections.

Given its powers, there has been huge interest in the transitional group.

Since May, Secretary of State John F. Kerry has been trying to get agreement among opposition groups as to who would represent them at the proposed Geneva II conference.

One previous roadblock was Gen. Salim Idriss, who heads the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army. He said in June, during a conversation with Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, that he would not attend any Geneva gathering until he receives arms that give him more power on the ground.

“What can we ask for when we go very weak to Geneva?” Idriss said.

The political wing of the Syrian opposition is made up of several groups, starting with the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which includes delegates from Idriss’s Free Syrian Army, the Syrian National Council, local councils and others, including the Muslim Brotherhood.

At their news conference in Paris Monday, Kerry, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and British Foreign Secretary William Hague all focused on the Syrian opposition groups in discussing the promised Sept. 27 meeting on the margins of the U.N. General Assembly session to discuss a Geneva II meeting.

“We know that in order to negotiate a political solution, we need a stronger position. We therefore intend to strengthen our support to the Syrian National Coalition,” Fabius said.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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