By: Joyce Karam
There were no groundbreaking announcements or game changers on Syria in U.S. President Barack Obama’s “West Point” speech yesterday. But there was a shift, as Obama departed from his usual political talking points into embracing a counterterrorism approach and supporting moderate rebels as a “counterweight” to both al-Qaeda elements and the Assad regime.
Such approach is likely to be implemented slowly and cautiously, with plenty of regional coordination, as the administration mulls with Congress types and levels of any military aid to opposition forces. Such process could take weeks if not months according to U.S. officials. Obama, by singling out Syria ten times in the speech, and simultaneously attacking Al-Qaeda and the Assad regime, seems to be pursuing a dual-strategy in the conflict.
From Geneva to counterterrorism
Unlike his previous mentions of Syria, the U.S. president made no reference at West Point to a political solution or even a process. Obama, a realist and a political pragmatist at heart, seems to have slowly turned the page on any near term prospects for a political settlement to the three-year-old conflict, and substituting that with carefully worded security lingo. He did not mention Assad’s legitimacy or a political transition. This tone, following the collapse of the Geneva talks last February, the defiance of the Assad regime, and the resurgence of al-Qaeda elements, signals an adjustment in Washington towards a prolonged conflict in Syria.
This security shift, while spelled out most clearly in yesterday’s speech, has been in the making for the last six months. Obama himself ordered a review of options in Syria ahead of the Geneva II talks, and as situation became more chaotic on the ground. This review was accompanied by what David Ignatius called a “spymasters meeting” in Washington last February, which included heads of intelligence from several Middle Eastern countries, as well as the Saudi Interior Minister Prince Mohammad Bin Nayef. The meeting focused on devising an effective regional umbrella to fight al-Qaeda in Syria and coordinating help to the “moderate rebel forces” fighting both Assad forces and extremist elements.
In fact, the Saudi interior minister is emerging as a key interlocutor and partner for Washington in fighting Al-Qaeda in Syria. He is praised in many quarters in the Obama administration and the relation has helped in better coordination regionally and between the U.S. and Riyadh. The spymasters meeting was followed by head of the Syrian coalition Ahmed Jarba’s visit to Washington, discussing “the strategic cooperation in fighting both al-Qaeda and Assad.”
While fighting al-Qaeda, mainly the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), is a key priority for the administration today, this fight is not isolated from the bigger strategy of combatting Assad. The U.S. sees Assad as a “magnet” for terrorism and holds him responsible for large degree of the chaos seen in Syria today. U.S. officials have also hinted in the past at an unspoken agreement between Assad forces and the ISIS, whereby the focus of the fighting and Assad bombardment would exclude ISIS-held territory.
U.S. options moving forward
Obama did not give definitive details on the tools he will utilize in supporting the moderate opposition, but he included Syria in the new Counter-Terrorism Partnerships Fund of up to $5 billion to fight terrorism, and helping its neighbors in such mission. The U.S. president also pledged to “work with Congress to ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists and a brutal dictator.”
A senior U.S. official explained to reporters after the speech that the administration will review with Congress the “possibility of the United States military participating in that effort.” The official coined strengthening the opposition as “both the best counterweight to Assad and also the best counterweight to the extremist elements within Syria” and hinted at getting authorization from Congress for a provision that allows the Pentagon to oversee such effort. A key element in this was the passage of The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) last week by the Senate Armed Services Committee (23-3 vote) allowing Pentagon to “ provide equipment, training, supplies, and defense services to assist vetted members of the Syrian opposition.”
As the Senate debates this, the administration continues to work with regional partners to vet rebel forces. The level of chaos on the ground inside Syria mandates a very cautious and careful approach in any kind of military assistance. The U.S. has also not taken direct action in form of drones conducted directly or through regional allies off the table.
Obama shied away from adopting any military game changers on Syria. There are none that the administration is willing to exercise such as boots on the ground or enforcing a no fly zone or heavily arming the opposition. But the speech and the status quo in Syria as Assad heads for reelection, have shifted U.S. calculus towards a security strategy that undermines al-Qaeda and weakens the Syrian regime.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. This article was first published in Al-Hayat.
Opinions do not necessarily reflect ARA News’ policy.
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