A hesitant Obama

Hisham Melhem

Published: Updated:

American sources said that U.S. President Barack Obama is “satisfied” with the EU’s decision to lift the arms embargo on Syrian rebels but is “unenthusiastic” about it. According to the sources, he still has doubts about the benefits of arming the opposition or about getting engaged in a stronger position to speed up the toppling of President Bashar al-Assad.

Sources revealed that the EU's decision came following consultations and coordination with Washington, adding that Obama, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Phillip Gordon and Ambassador Robert Ford – who is in charge of Syrian affairs at the Secretary of State – took part in discussions.

Sources indicated that there is an agreement European countries, including Britain and France, do not arm the opposition any time soon. However, they added that the decision aims to convince the Syrian opposition to participate in the second Geneva conference and aims to deliver a message to Assad that the West has other ways to pressure him. But hesitation and avoiding decisions remain the major features of Washington’s policy towards Syria.

Hesitant decisions and stances

Washington’s and Europe’s hesitant stances imply that they are looking for political means that allow them to gain more time and postpone difficult decisions, like arming, training, imposing a no-fly zone or launching air raids to obstruct the capabilities of the Syrian air force. A source at Congress spoke bitterly of how the Geneva conference turned into an open Syrian “peace process” that provides cover for the Syrian regime and its allies in Tehran, Lebanon and Moscow to resume fighting.

But at the same time, American officials confirm that they continue to evaluate military options, including imposing a no-fly zone, neutralizing the Syrian air force and launching limited military intervention operations via special forces – particularly if chemical arms are flagrantly used.

Officials continue to say that they still bet on Free Syrian Army chief of staff Brigadier General Salim Idriss, whom the Americans want to prove competence and field capabilities especially in managing liberated zones before they seriously consider arming him via additional parties. In a letter recently sent to Kerry, Idriss had called on him to arm the opposition with portable anti-missile and anti-aircraft defense systems and, in return, he presented guarantees that these weapons will be used by trusted Syrian military defectors. Officials also say that there is an American-European agreement against arming the opposition with anti-aircraft missiles.

On the current complications of Syrian battles, an official said that the Geneva conference may collapse if Qusayr and its surrounding areas fall in the hands of the regime and Hezbollah, because if this happens, it will be impossible that the opposition will participate in the conference.

This article was first published in Lebanon-based Annahar on May 30, 2013.

Hisham Melhem is the Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. Melhem's writings appear in publications ranging from the literary journal Al-Mawaqef to the LA Times, as well as in magazines such as Foreign Policy and Middle East Report. Melhem focuses on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media. In addition, Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Twitter: @Hisham_Melhem

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