As the violence in Syria spirals out of control, top officials in President Barack Obama's administration are quietly preparing options for how to assist the Syrian opposition, including gaming out the unlikely option of setting up a no-fly zone in Syria and preparing for another major diplomatic initiative.
Critics on Capitol Hill accuse the Obama administration of being slow to react to the quickening deterioration of the security situation in Syria, where over 5,000 have died, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. Many lawmakers say the White House is once again "leading from behind," while the Turks, the French, and the Arab League -- which sent anobserver mission to Syria this week - take the initiative to pursue more aggressive strategies for pressuring the Assad regime. But U.S. officials said that they are moving cautiously in order to avoid destabilizing Syria further, and to make sure they know as much as possible about the country's complex dynamics before getting more involved.
But the administration does see the status quo in Syria as unsustainable. The Bashar al Assadregime is a "dead man walking," State Department official Fred Hof said this month. So the administration is now ramping up its policymaking machinery on the issue. After several weeks of having no top-level administration meetings to discuss the Syria crisis, the National Security Council (NSC) has begun an informal, quiet interagency process to create and collect options for aiding the Syrian opposition, two administration officials confirmed to The Cable.
The process, led by NSC Senior Director Steve Simon, involves only a few select officials from State, Defense, Treasury, and other relevant agencies. The group is unusually small, presumably to prevent media leaks, and the administration is not using the normal process of Interagency Policy Committee (IPC), Deputies Committee (DC), or Principals Committee (PC) meetings, the officials said. Another key official inside the discussions is Hof, who is leading the interactions with Syrian opposition leaders and U.S. allies.
The options that are under consideration include establishing a humanitarian corridor or safe zone for civilians in Syria along the Turkish border, extending humanitarian aid to the Syrian rebels, providing medical aid to Syrian clinics, engaging more with the external and internal opposition, forming an international contact group, or appointing a special coordinator for working with the Syrian opposition (as was done in Libya), according to the two officials, both of whom are familiar with the discussions but not in attendance at the meetings.
"The interagency is now looking at options for Syria, but it's still at the preliminary stage," one official said. "There are many people in the administration that realize the status quo is unsustainable and there is an internal recognition that existing financial sanctions are not going to bring down the Syrian regime in the near future."
After imposing several rounds of financial sanctions on Syrian regime leaders, the focus is now shifting to assisting the opposition directly. The interagency process is still ongoing and the NSC has tasked State and DOD to present options in the near future, but nothing has been decided, said the officials - one of whom told The Cable that the administration was being intentionally cautious out of concern about what comes next in Syria.
"Due to the incredible and far-reaching ramifications of the Syrian problem set, people are being very cautious," the official said. "The criticism could be we're not doing enough to change the status quo because we're leading from behind. But the reason we are being so cautious is because when you look at the possible ramifications, it's mindboggling."
A power vacuum in the country, loose weapons of mass destruction, a refugee crisis, and unrest across the region are just a few of the problems that could attend the collapse of the Assad regime, the official said.
"This isn't Libya. What happens in Libya stays in Libya, but that is not going to happen in Syria. The stakes are higher," the official said. "Right now, we see the risks of moving too fast as higher than the risks of moving too slow."
The option of establishing a humanitarian corridor is seen as extremely unlikely because it would require establishing a no-fly zone over parts of Syria, which would likely involve large-scale attacks on the Syrian air defense and military command-and-control systems.
"That's theoretically one of the options, but it's so far out of the realm that no one is thinking about that seriously at the moment," another administration official said.
Although the opposition is decidedly split on the issue, Burhan Ghalioun, the president of the Syrian National Council, earlier this month called on the international community to enforce a no-fly zone in Syria.
"Our main objective is finding mechanisms to protect civilians and stop the killing machine," said Ghalioun. "We say it is imperative to use forceful measures to force the regime to respect human rights."