By Trudy Rubin
As President Obama enters his second term, Syria has become the most urgent test of his foreign policy leadership and style.
If Obama finally takes ownership of the effort to unseat Bashar al-Assad (which would not require U.S. troops or planes), there’s still a chance of preventing a Syrian implosion. If the administration leads from in front, it may be possible to head off a strategic disaster that would endanger Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Israel.
Yet early signs indicate that Obama will continue the muddled Syria policy of his first term, while continuing to lead from way, way behind.
Our Syria policy is unclear to both our enemies and our allies, as well as to the Syrian rebels.
Washington has outsourced the arming of rebel groups to Gulf states that prefer Islamist fighters. Meantime, the United States won’t help arm secular and moderate rebel commanders. So do we want Assad gone or don’t we?
Ordinary Syrians are also cynical about the U.S. “red line” on the use of chemical weapons. No wonder a Turkish official told me during a recent visit to Ankara: “We want more clarity in the United States position. People expect more from the United States.”
Civilians alone cannot determine the Syrian endgame. Unless Obama’s policy becomes more robust – and more convincing to the region – the Syrian conflict will spiral out of control.
Col. Abdul-Jabbar Akidi, a secular senior rebel commander in Aleppo, told me in November: “Syrians believe that America is with Bashar Assad. America does not support us.”
It’s no wonder he feels that way, since we have outsourced delivery of weapons to the Qataris and Saudis.
The Saudis were handed control of a major meeting of Free Syrian Army commanders this month in Turkey with the goal of setting up a unified command.
Perhaps the strongest indicator of a policy muddle was last week’s designation of the Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organization. True, the group has some al-Qaida links. But it has waged and won some of the toughest battles against Assad’s forces.
Echoing many other rebel commanders, Col. Akidi told me: “We are not united with jihadi groups, but we fight together with all people who fight Assad.” For the same reason, the president of the new civilian rebel coalition, Mouaz al-Khatib, disagreed publicly with the blacklisting of the group.
If the United States were arming non-Islamist rebels, they wouldn’t need Jabhat al-Nusra’s help.
The longer this conflict lasts, and the stronger the Islamists become, the more likely it is that sectarian war will spill over Syria’s borders. The only chance of preventing that is to speed up the endgame. That would require Obama to convince all parties, friend and foe, that he wants Assad gone.
Rhetoric will be no substitute for concrete actions. The time remaining is short.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by email at trubinphillynews.com.