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Seeing Syria Clearly

Does the administration finally know who the good guys are in Syria?

3:00 PM, Jun 15, 2012 • By LEE SMITH
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The Wall Street Journal reports that the White House is helping to coordinate logistics for the Free Syrian Army, but not providing arms. “U.S. intelligence operatives and diplomats have stepped up their contacts with Syrian rebels in part to help organize their burgeoning military operations against President Bashar al-Assad's forces, according to senior U.S. officials.”

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the Oval Office

This would certainly be promising news—except it is the third time in the last month administration officials have put this rumor forward, and on at least one occasions, officials subsequently walked back the story.

On May 15 the Washington Post reported that, “Syrian rebels … have begun receiving significantly more and better weapons in recent weeks, an effort paid for by Persian Gulf nations and coordinated in part by the United States, according to opposition activists and U.S. and foreign officials.” The next day, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland clarified that the administration had no intention of arming the rebels. As for coordinating arms shipments, presumably from Gulf Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Nuland described the White House’s role much more vaguely. “This is a loose coordination mechanism,” she said.

Then on May 24, the AP reported that the “Obama administration is preparing a plan that would essentially give U.S. nods of approval to arms transfers from Arab nations to some Syrian opposition fighters.”

So is the administration already playing a logistical role with the FSA, as the Post reported, contemplating playing one, as the AP claimed, or building toward it, as today’s Journal piece argues? Is the White House doing anything at all besides talking on background about doing something?

Part of the confusion is likely intentional. Obama’s Middle East policy is largely one of extricating the United States from the region and withdrawing from traditional commitments. It seems the last thing the president wants to do, especially in an election year, is commit his prestige to a regional civil war.

On the other hand, there’s growing pressure on the Hill, led by Senator John McCain, to arm the Syrian opposition, and in the wake of the Houla massacre, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney called for the same. With the body count in Syria soaring, it is getting more difficult for the White House to keep bobbing and weaving. As we’ve seen over the last few weeks with the administration’s repeated leaks on national security issues, one way around this dilemma is to let on to the press that even if it seems like the administration is stalled, it’s really doing a lot behind the scenes—thanks to the decisive personal direction of Obama.

At the same time, the White House has been saying for more than a year that it doesn’t know who the opposition inside Syria really is. If, as the Journal piece reports, the administration has been meeting with the FSA for six months, why does it still not know who makes up the Syrian opposition? As Tony Badran explains in his column for NOW Lebanon today, “we've heard senior officials in the Obama administration, from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to UN Ambassador Susan Rice, say that arming the opposition could be tantamount to arming al-Qaeda, since we don't know who this opposition really is.”

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