Guest columnist: Trudy Rubin

Trudy Rubin

Will someone please explain the Obama administration’s policy on Syria? After watching two top State Department officials try to explain it during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Thursday, I am totally lost.

And I’m not alone. Committee members on both sides of the aisle appeared equally confused.

Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, repeated the administration’s long-running mantra: “Only a negotiated political settlement will provide a durable and sustainable” end to the conflict. Without such an accord, he said, “regime supporters, fearing death, will fight to the death.”

Yet Ford couldn’t explain the administration’s strategy for getting a settlement, which would require the exit of Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian leader controls the skies and can bomb and Scud his opponents with impunity. “He believes he’s got the upper hand,” in the words of James Clapper, the U.S. director of national intelligence.

“Unless we change the dynamic … Assad will continue to believe he can hold on to power,” argued the committee chairman, Robert Menendez, D-N.J., his frustration showing. But the hearings provided few clues as to how U.S. officials plan to tip the scales.

For two years, the administration has been fruitlessly trying to persuade Russia’s Vladimir Putin to lean on his ally Assad; Elizabeth Jones, the acting assistant secretary of state for the Near East, said those efforts were ongoing. But when asked what would alter Moscow’s thinking, she replied: “It’s hard to know. We spend a considerable amount of effort talking with our Russian colleagues, [but] we haven’t quite been able to persuade them that it’s in their fundamental interest to move now rather than wait for many more thousands to be killed.”

Ouch! Clearly, the Russian avenue is useless unless Putin believes his ally is about to lose.

Yet Ford and Jones reiterated the United States’ refusal to give “lethal” aid — that is, arms — to non-Islamist Syrian rebels, even as jihadi groups rake in guns and funds from rich Gulf Arabs. Non-jihadi rebels get sporadic aid from the Qatari and Saudi governments, but not heavy weapons to counter Assad’s missiles and planes.

Of course, there are concerns that giving rebels shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles would run the risk of letting them fall into jihadi hands. Yet Ford detailed the vetting of rebel commanders done by other government agencies (the CIA), even naming several reliable rebel officers. “We know a lot more about the armed opposition than we did six months ago,” he said. “There are good people we can work with.”

If so, why not trust them with antiaircraft weapons? After all, the only way to break the military stalemate in Syria is to deny the regime control of the skies.

And it was galling to hear Ford talk about the recent U.S. decision to give “nonlethal” aid to some rebel groups — meaning rations, medicine and body armor. Such aid, he said, would help them “pull recruits away from better-financed extremist organizations.”

That claim insults our intelligence. As Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., put it, opposition fighters aren’t likely to be impressed “by the fact they might get a flak jacket when they’re being pounded by Scud missiles and airpower, or that we might give nonlethal aid while arms flow in from Iran and Russia to prop up Assad.

“We’ve watched as more than 80,000 were massacred, and we’ve given them [meals ready-to-eat] with an expiration date of June.”

More to the point, nonlethal aid won’t tip the military balance or send Assad into exile. So, again, what’s the strategy to get to political talks?

Ford is a courageous diplomat who seems to grasp the deeper problem. “There’s a real competition under way between extremists and moderates,” he said, “and we need to stand with the moderates.” But helping the moderates too little or too late only compounds the problem. It feeds Syrian conspiracy theories that the United States wants Assad to remain in power.

Even the U.S. approach to civilian rebels is confusing. The State Department just began to dispense aid directly to a new Syrian opposition council, which will channel it directly to civilian leaders in liberated areas of Syria. But the long debate that preceded this move fueled splits within the council and undermined the liberals within it. The White House has not decided whether to formally recognize the council as an alternative government. (That would require giving the new government arms.)

So it’s hard to argue with Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who said: “We really do not have a good idea where the president is headed on Syria policy. It feels to me we wake up and the events in Syria determine the next stopgap [measure] . . . to show we’re involved but not really that involved.”

Meantime, Syria is collapsing into a failed state that contains dangerous weapons, along with potent al-Qaida and Iranian presences. More than a million Syrian refugees have poured into neighboring Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, destabilizing the region. The longer the fighting goes on, the worse the situation will become, and the stronger the Islamists.

Everyone recognizes there are no good options in Syria. But some options are worse than others, and failing to choose guarantees the triumph of the worst ones. Last week’s testimony gave no hint that the administration is ready to make those hard choices.