Can Obama and Jarba dance the Syrian tango?

Syrian Coalition leader Ahmed Jarba’s visit to Washington this week will represent many firsts.

He is the first leader of the Coalition to arrive in the United States, the first opposition figure to be meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama since the conflict started in 2011, and this is the first visit to see open meetings for U.S. officials and Congress leaders with a member of the Syrian Military Council (SMC).

A White House official confirmed to Al Arabiya News that Obama will be hosting Jarba, while a source in the coalition anticipates the meeting to happen on Tuesday and before the delegation’s departure on Wednesday.

It is worth noting, however, that the meeting was not on the table when Jarba arrived to Washington this Monday. Obama originally was meant to “drop by” Jarba’s meeting with National Security Advisor Susan Rice.

Partner by necessity

The meeting in and of itself is a symbolic gesture from the White House recognizing Jarba and Coalition as “representatives of the Syrian people.”

Jarba might be emerging as a partner by necessity, not choice for the Obama administration, given the limited options that the U.S. has in circumventing an al- Qaeda and Assad victory in Syria.

Joyce Karam

Coming on the heels of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s announcement that he is seeking another term in elections to be held on June 3rd, the meeting reinforces Washington’s view that it does not lend Assad any legitimacy and is instead receiving his ardent foe in the Oval Office.

While the message itself will resonate, the Obama-Jarba meeting has to go beyond the symbolism and the cosmetic measures for it to have any credible impact on the situation inside Syria.

Sources close to Jarba tell Al Arabiya News that the goal of the meeting is “to build a working relationship with the administration, to give them an opportunity to see, know and trust us.”

In fact, that might be the biggest hurdle between the two sides today. Washington, amidst the chaos in Syria and failed diplomatic initiatives with Russia, is facing a nightmare scenario in the conflict. Assad is backed by Hezbollah and Iran on one hand, and al-Qaeda affiliates on the other; the biggest players on the ground in Syria.

According to a former U.S. official, the scenario of an unchecked Assad-Qaeda dominance threatens U.S. national security and the regional balance in the Middle East.

In that regard, Jarba might be emerging as a partner by necessity, not choice for the Obama administration, given the limited options that the U.S. has in circumventing an al- Qaeda and Assad victory in Syria.

Beyond cosmetics

In the lead up to Jarba’s meetings, a senior U.S. official would not comment on whether Washington is sending any lethal assistance to the Free Syrian Army. While a straight no was the answer to such questions in the last two and a half years, the Obama administration is saying now that it cannot comment on “all types” of assistance it is providing to the Coalition and the SMC.

In fact, the Chief of Staff of the Supreme Military Council Colonel Abdullah Al-Bashir is accompanying Jarba on his ten-day-visit.

Also, more reports about U.S. made anti-tank missiles reaching the Syrian opposition have surfaced in the last two months, and since the failure of the Geneva 2 process. U.S. officials speak of better regional coordination in supporting the “moderate rebels” and cutting funding and support for al-Qaeda affiliated ISIS and al-Nusra Front.

Yet, there is still lot of resistance in Washington to do a serious arming effort for the Syrian opposition. A source in the Coalition delegation attributes this resistance to al-Qaeda growth in Syria along with the presence of foreign fighters and warlords and the implementation of the chemical weapons agreement which will conclude in July.

The source said there was an “international veto, and not just an American objection, to not delivering anti-aircraft missiles to the Free Syrian Army” out of fear they might end up in the hands of al-Qaeda and target Western interests.

Instead, the Syrian opposition figure speaks of “gradual U.S. process of testing the current support and increasing it based on how the FSA utilizes and handles it.” The goal of such support would be to change the balance on the ground which is key according to Jarba and U.S. officials to reaching a political solution.

Building the trust between Obama and Jarba in their meeting Tuesday will be a key element to any measures that Washington could pursue in Syria. The two sides agree on changing the balance on the ground, fighting al-Qaeda as well as Assad and Hezbollah forces simultaneously, but the level of U.S. involvement and the length of the open war in Syria remain unclear at this point for both Jarba and Obama.




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. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

Last Update: Thursday, 08 May 2014 KSA 09:53 - GMT 06:53
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