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Washington Struggles to Find a Path Forward on Syria

WASHINGTON, Mar 5 2012 (IPS) - As the Syrian army has stepped up its attacks against opposition strongholds in Homs and elsewhere, the U.S. and its allies have achieved little consensus in choosing a course of action to oust President Bashar al-Assad.

Though Washington has severely criticised the Assad regime in Syria for the scale of violence being used against the Syrian opposition – Human Rights Watch estimates the death toll in Homs from this past month alone at over 700 – policymakers have yet to agree on a path forward beyond the existing sanctions policies and the coordination of humanitarian aid.

Many figures have explicitly called for foreign military intervention by U.S. forces, or at a minimum, the provision of U.S. arms to the fledgling Free Syrian Army, a loose assortment of anti-regime fighters that have changed the nature of the anti-Assad opposition from non-violent demonstrations to armed counter-attacks and firefights.

On Monday, John McCain became the first U.S. senator to openly call for U.S.-led airstrikes on President Bashar al-Assad’s military forces.

“The ultimate goal of airstrikes should be to establish and defend safe havens in Syria, especially in the north, in which opposition forces can organise and plan their political and military activities against Assad,” he is reported as saying in remarks on the Senate floor.

A congressional briefing last Friday featured a presentation by Dr. James Smith, founding director of the controversial military contracting firm Blackwater, who laid out a plan for the establishment of a “Benghazi-like” zone in northeastern Syria to use as a staging ground against the Syrian government.

Smith proposed that U.S. military and intelligence agencies coordinate with the existing Syrian opposition and the restive Kurdish population to establish a safe zone from which international military forces and humanitarian agencies would operate.

Smith, along with a significant portion of the neoconservative establishment, has called for intervention in Syria as a means to “confront Iran and Hezbollah by proxy”, by eliminating Syria’s role in the so-called “axis of resistance”.

Others who supported military action in Libya but have until recently expressed reservations about intervening in Syria have also been reconsidering their positions.

In a Washington Post op-ed, Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department who is close to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, called last week for “foreign military intervention” as “the best hope for curtailing a long, bloody destabilizing civil war”. She advocated the establishment of “no-kill zones” and “humanitarian corridors”, which she said could be enforced by internationally-armed local forces and unmanned aerial drones.

Such plans, however, are unlikely to gain significant traction until Washington is assured that its involvement would not further exacerbate the many problems facing the Syrian uprising and the rise of radical Islamist groups within it.

At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Thursday, Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Jeffrey Feltman made the case for the Syrian National Council’s “clear, credible opposition plan”, supported by “Arab leadership on the issue”, but also admitted that the opposition remains marred by “competing divisions, including an Islamist element”.

These fears have led many in Washington into the uncomfortable position of supporting opposition organisations such as the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army, while simultaneously expressing concern over their viability in a post-Assad era.

Many analysts have been quick to respond to calls for Western intervention by raising the spectre of Libya, where readily-available weapons and leadership divisions appear to have contributed to a rise in post-civil war violence and the new government’s inability to exert control over the scores of militias that participated in the war.

At a panel sponsored by the Century Foundation in New York last week, Michael Hanna, a fellow at the Century Foundation, warned that “Dumping arms into this conflict in an unorganised fashion is clearly going to make this conflict bloodier, and clearly going to prolong it.”

Those advocating a more direct international role in the Syrian uprising have been working to increase coordination and leadership within the disparate elements of the opposition, which remains divided not only between the various organisations but within them as well.

Hanna described the Free Syrian army as a “moniker for a local insurgency” that still lacks effective command and control.

The Syrian National Council has also faced growing divisions after a number of prominent members announced they were resigning from the group, citing a lack of progress and insufficient coordination with protestors on the ground.

The “Friends of Syria” meeting convened in Tunis last week exemplified many of these organisational contradictions. While representatives from some 70 countries and international organisations met to discuss ways to coordinate efforts to oust the Assad regime, they were unable to gain meaningful consensus on specific steps beyond the continuing application of diplomatic and economic sanctions.

Though there appeared to be widespread agreement over the need to coordinate humanitarian aid to Syria’s growing refugee population and the countless Syrians living with daily food and heating shortages, the scope of additional involvement proved to be a highly divisive issue.

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal is reported to have stormed out of the meeting, angered by the unwillingness of the members to take stronger measures – he has explicitly endorsed arming the opposition.

Russia and China declined to participate in the Friends of Syria meeting, but many policymakers have reluctantly acknowledged that Russia is likely to a play a significant role in the outcome of the conflict despite its apparent intransigence.

“The only way to resolve this is through the Russians,” said former U.S. ambassador to Turkey Morton Abramowitz, speaking at the Century Foundation. He argued that perhaps Vladimir Putin will be more amenable to compromise after Sunday’s Russian election in which the Russian prime minister regained the presidency.

A new report issued Monday by the International Crisis Group warned that Russian cooperation would be essential to a properly managed transition.

The report suggests that “If Moscow can be convinced that its current course maximises the risk of producing the outcome it professes to fear most: chaos” then it could create a situation in which “the (Syrian) regime would be confronted with the choice of either agreeing to negotiate in good faith or facing near-total isolation through loss of a key ally.”

Feltman, who recently returned from a trip to Moscow to discuss a way forward on the Syria issue, reported that “contact with Russia on all levels is continuing.”

Given the degree to which the Kremlin has invested in defending Assad over the past year, however, finding common ground with Russia will be a daunting task.

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