Rebel fighters take part in a demonstration against the Syrian regime in… (Odd Andersen / AFP/Getty…)
A new word defines the debate over Syria in Washington: endgame. Policymakers expect the regime in Damascus to fall soon, and their focus has shifted to what happens then.
In a cold-blooded, pragmatic sense, the United States and its allies don't want Bashar Assad's government to collapse immediately. Nobody's ready — inside Syria or out — to pick up the pieces. A sudden collapse could produce the same kind of chaos that enveloped Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. And with no U.S. Army units on hand in Syria to help restore order, there is fear that the regime's chemical weapons might fall into the hands of terrorists.
That's one reason the Obama administration is strongly backing a new national coalition of Syria's political opposition as it designs a framework for a Syrian government after Assad. This week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is expected to formally recognize the coalition as the "legitimate representative of the Syrian people," a step toward treating it as the country's transitional government. The United States has already taken steps to provide funding and other help to enable the coalition to begin governing in rebel-held areas.
But the planning has reopened old arguments in the administration on a key question: Should the United States be giving the rebels military aid as well?
So far, the administration has been exquisitely cautious; officially, the United States provides only "non-lethal aid" to the opposition. But that has sent the rebels begging elsewhere for weapons and ammunition — something they've done quite successfully. They have obtained guns from captured Syrian government stocks and from neighboring countries such as Turkey and Jordan. And they have bought weapons from Syrian soldiers and international smugglers, with cash from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Here's the problem: By refusing to supply weapons, the United States has been left with little say in which rebel groups receive arms. Consequently, much of the weaponry has gone to militant Islamist groups favored by Saudi and Qatari donors rather than to the Free Syrian Army, the military organization the U.S. favors.
An increasing number of U.S. officials are now arguing that the new national coalition won't succeed in winning support on the ground unless it amasses more of the currency of power in any insurrection: military supplies. They argue that the best way for the U.S. to curb the flow of weapons to radical Islamist groups, including an Al Qaeda-inspired group called the Nusra Front, would be to participate directly in the arms flow.
"We need to exercise some leadership and a management role in the arms business," argues Frederic C. Hof, who helped direct State Department policy on Syria until September. "We need to try to dominate the logistics and the decision making on who gets what and who doesn't. We need to do it working hand in glove with others; you don't want it to be seen as an exclusively American effort.... But we've got to have some skin in the game."
Until now, the administration has hesitated to supply weapons because it hoped for a negotiated solution to the war. "We had no desire to further militarize the situation; that was one of our catchphrases," Hof said. "But that phrase is no longer relevant.... The accelerating demise of the regime and the threat of sectarian bloodletting is destroying Syria. Time is our enemy. The worse it gets, the harder it gets for Syria to be rebuilt."
This isn't mainly about getting the rebels more weapons; those are already flowing in. It's not about them; it's about us — and the amount of influence we'll have in Syria once the insurgents win.
Officials acknowledge that President Obama and his aides are considering the arms question anew. For the moment, they're still hesitating, in part because Russia agreed last week to consider making a new appeal to Assad for a negotiated peace. The Russians, the Syrian government's most powerful ally, have long opposed any outside help to the rebels.
But almost nobody expects diplomatic appeals to work at this point. Assad has steadfastly rejected every suggestion that he step down; the rebels, who think they're winning, have little reason to negotiate unless he does.
So the question of U.S. military aid for the insurgency will be front and center as soon as the current round of diplomacy sputters out. Unless the rebels win first, in which case the United States will find itself playing catch-up, seeking influence with a new government that thinks Washington gave too little help in its hour of greatest need.
Follow Doyle McManus on Twitter @DoyleMcManus