It remains unclear where the new national security leadership stands under Secretary of State John F. Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and CIA Director John O. Brennan. Beyond the administration’s intense focus on domestic issues, the White House has been distracted by Obama’s upcoming trip to Israel. Syria is only one of several foreign policy crises, including North Korea and Iran, competing for urgent attention.
There has been some incremental movement over the past several weeks, based on decisions that a senior administration official said have come “directly from the president” in response to growing “dangers on the ground” in Syria and a recognition of opposition progress.
Traveling overseas for meetings with allies and Syrian rebel political leaders, Kerry publicly acknowledged for the first time that the United States was coordinating with governments already sending arms and has confidence that “the weapons are being transferred to moderates.” A small contingent of U.S. forces, working with the Jordanian military, is reportedly training some rebel forces at a camp north of Amman.
Kerry announced that the United States would provide humanitarian aid directly to the Syrian opposition’s political coalition and would provide food and medical supplies to the rebel military. He told allied governments that he would bring their pleas for more U.S. involvement back to Obama.
But the administration is not alone in its reluctance to send arms. At Friday’s meeting of the 25-member E.U., Germany, the Scandinavian countries and others disagreed with French and British insistence that the embargo be dropped.
“Just the fact that two have changed their minds doesn’t mean that the other 25 have to follow suit,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said.
The issue will be debated again in coming days, when E.U. foreign ministers meet in Dublin. The existing embargo lapses at the end of May. If it is not renewed by unanimous vote, each country will be free to act as it wishes. Britain and France would like a new version that continues sanctions on Assad’s government while allowing arms shipments to the rebels.
There are similar splits in opinion in this country. A number of Republican leaders have accused the administration of inaction, some Democrats have warned against a new foreign involvement, and the public is weary of faraway wars.
Even Britain and France — and the United States, should it eventually decide to join them — are unlikely to provide everything the rebels and their supporters in the region say they need. Air support remains highly unlikely, absent Assad’s use of chemical weapons, as do portable surface-to-air missiles, which the rebels want to shoot down Assad’s helicopters and jets.
But as the United States’ closest allies in Europe move rapidly toward a new level of involvement, Cameron said, the important thing is “persuading people who have been less willing to move on this that there really [are] very strong arguments for saying that what is happening now isn’t working.”