A rebel fighter with his son after Friday prayers in Aleppo, Syria. As rebels… (Odd Andersen / AFP/Getty…)
WASHINGTON — With the Syrian civil war apparently near a turning point, Obama administration officials are finding their ability to influence the fast-moving events and growing violence hampered by their reluctance to become too deeply involved during the first 21 months of the conflict.
As the opposition has scored major gains against the regime of President Bashar Assad in recent days, U.S. officials have stepped up diplomatic efforts and begun weighing whether to start providing arms or other military assistance to the rebels.
But at a moment when the future of the strategically key nation may be up for grabs, Washington's power is limited by its weak ties to rebel field commanders who will have a major say in what comes next if Assad is toppled, say diplomats, opposition officials and regional experts.
"We don't have a presence on the ground and we haven't given assistance in any measure to these people," said James Jeffrey, a veteran U.S. diplomat who retired last summer after a final posting as U.S. ambassador to Iraq. "This is going to have an impact on our influence ... and it didn't have to be this way."
Though the administration has provided diplomatic pressure, humanitarian relief and nonlethal aid, it has been unwilling to supply arms or to use U.S. military force to set up a no-fly zone, as it did in the Libyan civil war last year. Officials fear that weapons would end up in the hands of extremists, and they want to limit U.S. military involvement at a time when Americans are war-weary and world powers and Arab states are divided on the conflict.
But it has become clear that, as they plan their approach to the next stage of the war, U.S. officials will have to try to overcome the unhappiness of rebel commanders who don't understand America's unwillingness to provide the military help it gave Libyan rebels last year.
The stakes are high. If the regime falls — by no means a certainty — the United States and its allies will want to move quickly to try to steer Syria toward a moderate, multiethnic government and away from a sectarian bloodbath. U.S. officials and allies are now busy formulating plans to help Syrians form a new government.
The number of extremist fighters in groups such as the Al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front has been rising, and if those groups take control of a new government, the geopolitical landscape of the region could change overnight in dangerous ways. Obama, who has been criticized by conservatives for failing to do more in Syria, could face accusations that his policy of limited engagement "lost" Syria.
The issue came up in the presidential campaign, with Republican challenger Mitt Romney saying he would supply arms to the Syrian opposition and Obama advocating a more cautious approach.
"We can't simply suggest that giving heavy weapons to the Syrians is a simple proposition that would lead us to be safer over the long term," the president said in the final debate of the campaign.
The rebel commanders' frustration with the United States has been apparent in recent weeks, in demonstrations that in some cases have shown up on YouTube.
One video shows a Nov. 30 demonstration in the village of Binish in which rebel fighters brandish their weapons and declare that they are fighting to create an Islamist Syria that would not be led by a Western-backed coalition of opposition groups, the newly formed National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.
"We will not leave the revolution to the coalition that is a game in the hand of America and serves the American project," one of the fighters says in Arabic. "Oh, Obama, listen and listen!"
Though his views may be more radical than those of most opposition fighters, there is widespread unhappiness that America has not done more.
"Syrians have been looking for U.S. leadership, but unfortunately the United States has chosen not to get involved and people here have gotten more and more upset," said Khalid Saleh, an executive board member of the Syrian National Council opposition bloc and a representative to the new coalition. He said he believes the United States could still take a lead role, but he has not seen signs that the administration wants to do so.
He noted that whereas France and Britain have recognized the new coalition as the legitimate government-in-waiting in Syria, the United States has been reluctant to do the same — a sign, in his view, that Washington still wants others to lead the way. U.S. officials are expected to formally recognize the group Wednesday at an international meeting on Syria in Marrakech, Morocco.