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Obama Shifts into high gear on Syria

Joyce Karam

Published: Updated:

The announcement by the White House yesterday indicating “varying degrees of confidence” that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons, marks an escalation from the U.S. in the 2-year old conflict. On the ground, it can translate in stepping up support for the armed opposition, as well as coordinating contingency plans with regional and international allies to safeguard Syria’s chemical arsenal and in pressuring Russia.

The announcement is by every measure an escalation from the Obama administration against the Assad regime

Joyce Karam

In a calculated and carefully planned effort, the Obama administration rolled out two identical letters to Senator John McCain (Republican) and Carl Levin (Democrat) asserting “with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria.” The letters while reminding that “intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient and only credible and corroborated facts are”, they set the stage for a larger U.S. push and in close consultation with Congress and regional allies to handle Syria. The White House indicated that “no option is off the table” and both Secretaries of Defense and State Chuck Hagel and John Kerry were dispatched to lay out details on the alleged chemical use of the Sarin agent. Hagel said it would be a “game changer” and Kerry cited two attacks where it could have been used in Syria.

Options and Timing

The announcement is by every measure an escalation from the Obama administration against the Assad regime, and will draw Washington into a bigger role in the Syrian conflict. It was last August when Obama warned the Syrian government that any use or transfer of chemical weapons to terrorist groups is a “red line”, and while a White House official yesterday advised to wait for a “corroborated and credible evidence” and for consultations with allies in Europe and the Middle East before declaring that the Syrian President Bashar Assad has crossed that line, members of congress have chosen otherwise. High ranking Senators from both parties such as Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and McCain stated that Assad has crossed the red line and called for action to prevent larger scale use.
Discussions in U.S. policy circles have started on the kind of military options and contingency plans available for Washington in Syria. The head of the Senate Foreign relations committee Bob Menendez laid out series of options for limited intervention in Syria. Establishing a no-fly zone, arming “vetted opposition forces” , as well as sanctioning transfer of arms to the regime are part of the list that the influential Senator wants the White House to consider.

The timing of the administration announcement comes after series of meetings that Obama has held with Arab leaders this week, including UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan and Amir of Qatar Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani. Syria will also come up today in Obama’s meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan, whose country is hosting U.S. troops for military planning on Syria and has been involved in training the Syrian opposition.

The move comes as Assad receives more help from Iran and the Lebanese party Hezbollah as well as some Iranian backed Iraqi militias. Washington views Assad as increasingly dependent on Iran, and will not accept any political transition that enforces such direction. While the U.S. is aware of the regime’s current military advances in the Damascus suburbs and El-Qusseir (both are critical to transfer arms to the opposition), it does not see them as strategic and anticipates continued battle for the major cities as the opposition tries to solidify gains in the North.

Pressuring Russia

Whether in pushing for a U.N. investigation over chemical weapons use, or consulting with allies on potential options, Washington is poised to take a larger role in Syria. The U.S. policy of contained pressure has not materialized in seeing Assad step down or finding a political settlement for the conflict. Instead chaos has engulfed Syria producing an unprecedented regional refugee crisis, as Al-Qaeda and extremists have established a stronger presence in the country.

Today, there is a sense among administration officials including Secretary of State John Kerry that the U.S. has to do more to change the regime’s calculations and those of its supporters including Russia. A senior U.S. official contends that Assad is no where near relinquishing power, and that organizing the armed opposition is critical. The push for chemical weapons investigation will help Washington in galvanizing international support behind the issue and in putting pressure on Russia at the UN. If the evidence is “corroborated” and deemed credible, Moscow’s defense of Assad will be more precarious at the security council. On the ground such campaign might prompt regional moves to safeguard these weapons.

The administration also appears to have left the door open for political maneuvering on the issue and by emphasizing the need for “corroborated and credible facts” in addition to the intelligence assessment. Such language will help in leaving room for political flexibility with Russia as both countries attempt to work out differences on a political solution.

Pushing the chemical weapons issue will help Washington lead the Syrian case internationally, increase pressure on Assad and attempt to change the dynamic with Russia. It also gives Obama a legislative cover from congress to step up U.S. involvement and coordination with regional allies without necessarily promising a swift end to the conflict.

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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

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