If there was a sliding scale for American involvement in foreign conflicts, after 16 months of violence in Syria, the U.S. might just have reached the quarter mark between zero involvement and full-fledged war. “We’re moving at some sort of glacial pace” towards armed intervention, says Jeff White, a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency who’s currently a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “First, you go in and assess the people you might want to work with… It seems to me that we’ve gotten through the assessing process and we kind of know who we want to work with but in terms of providing lethal assistance, we’re not there yet.”
Up until this point the only thing the U.S. has owned up to is providing humanitarian assistance and communications equipment. But a report from Reuter’s Mark Hosenball this week revealed that President Obama signed a secret order authorizing intelligence and covert support to groups seeking to oust Syrian strongman Bashar Assad. That so-called “finding” was only approved within the last month, sources say, and does not include lethal support. In other words, the U.S. won’t be sending in Seal Team Six to take down Assad any time soon, but it is training certain groups to handle and gather intelligence. White House spokesman Tommy Vietor had no comment on the matter.
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The Free Syrian Army has long sought from the U.S. intelligence instead of arms, which they’re getting in abundance from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Though he couldn’t confirm that the FSA is now getting intelligence assistance, Brian Sayers, the FSA’s lobbyist in Washington, says that he’s focused on a broader spectrum of support. The FSA is working to register as a 501(c)3 non-profit so it can raise money and it’s pushing for gas masks in case Assad uses his stockpiles of chemical weapons. “If the U.S. was to relax the export license that would be wonderful because the U.S. has some very sophisticated weapons that could take out helicopters,” Sayers says. “But that’s not happening at this stage.”
The question of whether or not to arm the opposition occupied Senators from both sides of the aisle Wednesday in a hearing on the future of Syria. Though the three witnesses came from different experiential and ideological backgrounds, their conclusion was the same: the U.S. should long ago have started arming the Syrian rebels. “If we don’t do that very rapidly I fear that not only will we be losing some of the texture of what’s going on,” Andrew Tabler, author of In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria, told the committee,” but we’ll be allowing others to forge those relationships, sometimes our allies but also our enemies.”
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There are huge risks in arming the FSA. Some weapons could wind up in the hands of al-Qaeda, whose presence in Syria is growing as the war drags on. And the weapons would almost certainly be used by some Sunnis – 70% of Syrians are Sunni, and the FSA is largely Sunni as well — to slaughter Alawites, the minority Shia sect that has ruled Syria for more than 40 years. But former Ambassador Martin Indyk argued to the committee that the good would outweigh the bad. “As a general principal I think we need to be careful of not falling into the trap of Jihadist boogey men. As our former allies like [former Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak used to use them to convince us not to do the right thing,” he said. “In order to shape the outcome in Syria we have to be involved in what’s going on on the ground.”
The U.S. will have influence with whatever government is formed in the wake of Assad’s departure – assuredly more influence than Russia, which is stubbornly supporting Assad. And there are many who argue the current strategy is working just fine. For now, providing the rebels with intelligence will earn some good will. But, if the Assad regime is strengthening again and the violence escalates, so too will the pressure for the U.S. to provide advanced weapons that can take down tanks and helicopters. “What’s more important right now for the United States than drafting [post-Assad] plans is forging relationships with the next leaders of Syria,” former Ambassador James Dobbins, who’s now with the Rand Corporation, told the committee. “It would be a great mistake to let the emerging Syrian leadership believe that al-Qaeda did more to help them prevail than the United States.”