Still pussyfooting

By Tony Badran
Last Wednesday, Special Coordinator for Regional Affairs Frederic Hof appeared before the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs to update Congress on where US policy on Syria currently stands and how the Obama administration’s plans are moving forward. The result was rather disappointing. Indeed, it became obvious that four months after President Barack Obama called for Bashar al-Assad’s departure, his administration has yet to develop a policy to achieve that objective.
Prior to the hearing, there was some speculation that the administration might reveal a more hardened position, but that was not to be. Instead, Hof repeated much of what we’ve been hearing over the last month from other administration officials, such as the need to have monitors on the ground in Syria.
We heard these talking points earlier this month in Amman during Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman’s trip to the region. Feltman pointed to the Arab League’s call for sending monitors into Syria as a way forward. “By allowing the monitors in, by allowing the media in, that''s a peaceful way of trying to stop this sustained cycle of violence that Assad seems committed to turning Syria into.”
This is apparently as far as the administration is willing to go at this juncture. In fact, Hof reiterated the same point in his testimony. “What we are hoping may still happen … is that somehow the Arab League will be able to persuade the Syrian regime to accept monitors … Our view is that it is much less likely that this regime will do its worst if there are witnesses present.” Tellingly, Hof added that the Arab League’s initiative was “the main game in town right now.”
Curiously, Hof expressed deep skepticism as to the prospects of Assad accepting the initiative at all, noting that he “will not likely do so.”
There is obvious dissonance here. If the administration considers the Arab League’s initiative “the main game in town,” and yet expects Assad not to abide by it, this then begs the question: what is the administration’s plan B? Hof provided no answer.
Not surprisingly, the Committee was clearly not satisfied with the administration’s answer. A sticking point throughout the hearing was the administration’s position on the use of force against Assad.
The problem of course is that without the threat of force, the Arab League’s position – regardless what one thinks of this initiative – becomes inconsequential. It is for this reason that the Arab leaders have tried to frame their initiative as the last resort before “internationalization” of the Syrian crisis. In other words, the Arabs are seeking to use as leverage the prospect of some sort of international intervention in order to frighten Assad into accepting their terms.
However, when the world, led by the US, is preemptively dismissing any such scenario, then it is effectively undercutting the Arab League’s warning and helping Assad call its bluff, especially when action by the UN Security Council remains unlikely given Russia’s seemingly permanent objection to pressuring the Assad regime.
Hof also repeated the administration’s position discouraging the militarization of the Syrian uprising, even as he very clearly expressed understanding for the Syrian people picking up weapons to defend themselves against Assad’s killing machine.
The administration’s position wasn’t convincing to the Committee’s chairman, Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH), and to several of the members, such as Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Robert Turner (R-NY), who expressed doubt as to whether toppling Assad will even be possible without the use of force, and they voiced their disappointment at the “apprehension about armed resistance to tyranny,” as Rep. Rohrabacher put it.
These Committee members identified a glaring gap in the administration’s approach. On the one hand, it believes that the longer Assad remains in power the likelier civil war becomes in Syria. However, it has no answers on how it would deal with, let alone prevent, such a scenario, in light of its exclusive emphasis on peaceful and bloodless solutions to what is already a bloody conflict. The administration wants to hasten Assad’s demise but believes the “main game” is an Arab initiative that has been fruitlessly negotiated ad nauseam since its announcement.
To be sure, Hof had unambiguous words on where the US stood regarding the Syrian regime and its assessment of its fate, dubbing it a “dead man walking.” But with the administration focused on the post-Assad phase and the fate of minorities, it has failed to put forth a convincing policy on the more urgent task of how to remove Assad before he does more damage.
In the end, however, as the Committee’s chairman, Rep. Chabot, told Hof, “ultimately [physical force] probably is going to be necessary.” The administration simply must come to terms with that and prepare accordingly.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay. This article was first published on NOWLebanon.