WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In his first year in office, U.S. President Barack Obama sent a letter to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad seeking a new start to a long-strained relationship.
In his third year, Obama demanded that Assad step down.
Now, nearing the end of his first term, with a presidential election looming in November, Obama is moving cautiously toward greater support for Syrian rebels, as international diplomatic efforts that had been Obama’s first preference falter.
Reuters has learned that the White House has crafted a presidential directive, called a “finding,” that would authorize greater covert assistance for the rebels, while still stopping short of arming them.
It is not clear whether Obama has signed the document, and U.S. officials declined to comment on the finding, which is a highly classified authorization for covert activity.
But in recent days, the Obama administration has signaled publicly it plans more help for the rebels.
“I have to say that we are also increasing our efforts to assist the opposition,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Tuesday.
The administration is seeking ways to help Assad’s opponents by increasing supplies of communications equipment and sharing intelligence about Assad’s troop movements. The United States has already sent encrypted radios.
The administration is also trying to help the rebels become better organized, planning for when Assad falls, and keenly monitoring Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles to ensure they are secure.
Clinton hinted this week that if the rebels could control a swathe of Syrian territory from which to operate, more U.S. and allied backing would follow.
The decision to lend greater logistical and political backing for the rebels is the latest step in Obama’s odyssey over the Syria conflict, where the president chose early on not to intervene with U.S. military force.
Critics charge that Obama has moved too cautiously as Assad’s well-armed forces have massacred civilians, a bloodbath that dissidents say has killed more than 18,000 since the uprising first flared in the city of Deraa in March 2011. Another potential massacre now looms in the city of Aleppo.
“We have been very slow to this, not organized. Even our intelligence services have been slow to position themselves to garner better information,” said House of Representatives Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, a Republican.
“We were slow in even getting to the place where a decision was made to engage in other tools and capabilities of the United States which I am not at liberty to discuss,” he said.
One of the most telling signs that the administration sees few good options in Syria is the apparent lack of major policy disagreement among Obama’s advisers. “There was more on Egypt and Libya,” a senior administration official said.
“Sometimes you are faced with a set of options, none of which are good, and you make a judgment of what you think is the least bad of the options you face,” said Dennis Ross, who advised Obama on Middle East policy. “In Syria, I think that’s been the approach of the administration: adopt the least bad option.”
Some State Department officials reportedly have bristled at the White House’s domination over even small details of Syria strategy.
But there has never been much support among Obama’s top advisers for the pivotal step of giving weapons to fractious anti-Assad fighters, some of whom are anti-Western Islamists.
“It’s been on the agenda at meetings, but there has not been sufficient enthusiasm for that type of program of arming the opposition that the president had to spend a lot of time talking about (it) with his advisers,” said the senior official, describing internal deliberations on condition of anonymity.
Those who have worked with Obama say no single adviser has his ear on Syria.
“There are rings of people who have his ear in the sense that he listens to them seriously, but there is no Svengali or Rasputin in this game, he makes his own decisions,” said former Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, now dean of Syracuse University’s Maxwell School.
Thomas Donilon, Obama’s national security adviser, is a meticulous policy planner who asks for exhaustive studies of any issue before drawing conclusions, aides say privately.
Syria is no exception. He has kept his staff busy for months reviewing Syria policy options, should the president ask for a list of alternatives. One U.S. government source said the new presidential finding had been on Donilon’s desk for quite some time without further action.
A second senior administration official objected to the notion of slow movement on Syria: “I will not get into specifics, but no policy decision like this languishes at the White House.”
Far more complex than Libya, where Obama put U.S. clout and warplanes behind the effort to oust Muammar Gaddafi, Syria is sometimes described as a potential “Lebanon on steroids,” referring to the latter country’s sectarian divide and 1975-1990 civil war. Assad and his closest allies belong to the minority Alawites, while the majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslim. Other minorities include Kurds, Christians and Druze.
Adding to the complexity, opposition groups, according to some U.S. estimates, number in the low hundreds, some little more than neighborhood protection units.
Direct U.S. involvement would also bring the danger of a superpower confrontation. Russia is Syria’s long-time ally.
Nor has the president been eager for another conflict in the Middle East as he seeks to put the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the rear-view mirror.
The 2012 election year adds to the decibel of criticism. Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney accused Obama of having “abdicated leadership” on the Syria crisis.
“They have no policy. I think they lurch from one level of rhetoric to another. They have run out of adjectives and adverbs and meanwhile the situation cries out for American leadership and that is totally absent,” said Senator John McCain, a Republican who supports arming the rebels.
“I’ve met with leaders in the region, and they say we need American leadership and obviously that’s not there,” McCain told Reuters.
Edward Djerejian, former U.S. ambassador to Syria and now founding director of the Baker Institute at Rice University, said Obama’s policy “is not hands-off, it’s just that there is no simple international response to what is happening in Syria.”
Obama made his boldest known move in the Syria crisis cautiously, underscoring his preference for diplomacy and coalition-building.
Nearly a year ago, he called on Assad to step aside. But Obama first sought to make sure key allies were with him.
On August 11, 2011, Obama called Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan essentially to tell him the United States was going to call for Assad to go, the first senior administration official said.
What followed, the official said, was an unusually detailed conversation for two world leaders.
Erdogan, who had also reached out to Syria and whose foreign minister had held talks with Assad in Damascus two days earlier, walked Obama point by point through the commitments Assad had made. They included a plan to pull military assets out of cities and start a dialogue with opponents.
Obama countered point by point with evidence that Assad was violating each promise.
Finally, Obama told Erdogan he would continue to monitor Assad’s actions and U.S. and Turkish teams would stay in contact over the next 48 hours.
On August 18, Obama announced his decision. “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside,” he said in a written statement.
The decision, five months after the rebellion began, was harder than it appeared, said White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes.
“People always feel like it’s a simple thing to call for a leader to step down. It’s not. You’re basically saying we’re not ever going to deal with this government,” Rhodes said.
Nearly a year later, Assad remains in power, however precariously, and U.S. intelligence officials predict a long conflict ahead.
“Early on there was recognition that this was going to be hard. This is not Libya, because of the sectarian element,” said Ross, now at The Washington Institute think-tank.
Obama, now more actively trying to help oust Assad, began his approach to Syria with an olive branch, part of a larger presidential policy of reaching out to longtime adversaries during his first year in office.
Obama sent Assad a letter in those early months talking about the potential for change in the relationship, “our being open to it, our being interested in it, but it would have to be a two-way street,” a former administration official recalled.
Obama talked about concerns but also the “potential to transform the relationship if he (Assad) was open to taking real steps,” the former official said.
Senior U.S. officials were dispatched to Damascus for talks with Syrian officials. In 2010, Obama nominated Robert Ford to be ambassador to Syria, a post that had been vacant.
But then Obama discovered that while Assad talked a good game, he did not follow through.
Said Djerejian: Assad as reformer “turned out to be a false image.”
Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Susan Cornwell, Arshad Mohammed, Mark Hosenball; Editing by Warren Strobel and Paul Simao