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The U.S. raises the volume on Syria

For close Syria watchers, it was hard not to notice a louder and more pointed criticism from the U.S. administration towards the Assad regime

Joyce Karam

Published: Updated:

For close Syria watchers, it was hard not to notice a louder and more pointed criticism from the U.S. administration towards the Assad regime in the last few weeks. The statements lambasting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while resuming non-lethal and “covert” aid to some rebel groups, could be only tactical and centered around the Geneva II conference, according to experts. Or, it could signify “a bigger shift” on part of the administration in dealing with what has become a regional security problem.

“Definitely, there is a change of tone in the U.S. rhetoric, at least form the Secretary of State’s side ” says Joseph Bahout, a Professor of Middle East Studies at the Institute of Politics in Paris. Bahout points to the systematic “harsh language” coming from Kerry at his opening speech for the Geneva II conference, followed by his interview with Al Arabiya’s Rima Maktabi and all the way to his speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Kerry’s Assurances

The recurring theme was that there is no place for Assad in any political transition. Kerry held Assad responsible “for the disintegration of Syria” and branded him as a “one-man super-magnet for terrorism.” When asked about the military threat, Kerry even spoke about “keeping all options on the table” and spoke about “parallel efforts being made, even while the talks are going on in order to try to find different pressure points” on the Assad regime.

The Syrian crisis has become more of a security threat for regional countries and the West due to the rise of al-Qaeda affiliated elements

Joyce Karam

The U.S. Secretary of State was “taking full advantage of the media focus on Geneva II to drive home some central points” says Frederick Hof a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Hof tells Al Arabiya News that Kerry was reassuring the Opposition and “realizes that Syria-related diplomacy unaccompanied by the military threat is a leverage-free exercise..and he is right.” The sticking point, however, according to Hof, is in “President Obama quietly and tacitly removing the [military] threat in return for the chemical weapons agreement.” Until the agreement is implemented, the “administration really has no alternatives.”

Parallel arming track?

While Kerry was making headlines, officials in Washington announced the resumption of non-lethal aid to civilian opposition groups in the north of the country, as Reuters leaked an unusual report quoting U.S. and European officials that Congress secretly approved U.S. weapons flow to “moderate” Syrian rebels in the south of the country. The arms, delivered via Jordan, include “some powerful weapons such as anti-tank rockets.”

Bahout, who is also a policy consultant to the French government, sees in the weapon deliveries one more “signal of a repositioned U.S. approach in the aftermath of the Geneva II” conference. The conference, in the words of U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, has not reached a “substantive result.”

Bahout tells Al Arabiya News that the arming, even if limited in nature, cannot be seen apart from the ground developments. The fighting between the more moderate rebels and al-Qaeda affiliates in the north is helping draw distinction in Washington between the good and the bad rebels.

Increasing security threat

The Syrian crisis has become more of a security threat for regional countries and the West due to the rise of al-Qaeda affiliated elements. There is a “convergent reading” between “different actors regionally and in Europe” says Bahout on the need to address this threat. U.S. President Barack Obama for the first time on Tuesday highlighted differences between factions of the Syrian opposition, saying at his State of the Union address that the U.S. “will support the opposition that rejects the agenda of terrorist networks.”

For Hof, who was special adviser on Syria for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, however, “unless and until a mission of arming, equipping, and training selected elements of the Free Syrian Army is assigned to the U.S. Department of Defense, it will be literally impossible for any U.S.-provided lethal assistance to make a noticeable difference on the ground in Syria.” According to Hof, the objective of the current arming effort seems to be aimed at “[giving] armed Syrian nationalists the means to survive without prevailing.”

While the diplomatic initiatives and the talks with Russia remain central to the U.S. effort, there is a recognition inside the Obama administration regarding their limits and an underlying distrust of Russia’s intentions. Washington is also aware of the importance of the military component and watching closely the developments inside Syria and the fighting against al-Qaeda, before deciding if it will heavily weigh in with serious support to the non-radicalized opposition.

In the Post-Geneva II phase, the U.S. appears to be cautiously testing different policy cards in Syria, before a future reassessment of its approach to push for a faster 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

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.