(David Rohde is a Reuters columnist but his opinions are his own.)
By David Rohde
NEW YORK, Feb 21 (Reuters) - Typhoid and hepatitis outbreaks are spreading. At least 70,000 people are dead, and there are 850,000 refugees. After covering the battle for Damascus for a month, my colleague - photographer Goran Tomasevic - declared the situation a “bloody stalemate” this week.
“I watched both sides mount assaults, some trying to gain just a house or two, others for bigger prizes, only to be forced back by sharpshooters, mortars or sprays of machine-gun fire,” Tomasevic, a gifted and brave photographer, wrote in a chilling first-hand account. “As in the ruins of Beirut, Sarajevo or Stalingrad, it is a sniper’s war.”
The Obama administration’s policy toward Syria is a failure. Bashar al-Assad is hanging onto power. Iran, Hezbollah and Russia are funneling him more aid, armaments and diplomatic cover than ever. And Syrian rebels who once hailed the United States now loathe it.
In an incisive essay published this week in the London Review of Books, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, a journalist with the Guardian, described the continued atomization of the Syrian opposition. Abdul-Ahad, an Iraqi who covered the dissolution of his own nation, freely admits that “we in the Middle East have always had a strong appetite for factionalism.” But then he delivers a damning description of how prevarication in Washington creates deepening anti-Americanism among the rebels.
“Why are the Americans doing this to us?” one rebel commander demands. “They told us they wouldn’t send us weapons until we united. So we united in Doha. Now what’s their excuse?”
In the meantime, hard-line jihadists and their funders in the Persian Gulf are filling the void.
“Maybe we should all become jihadis,” the exasperated commander declares. “Maybe then we’ll get money and support.”
The time has come for the Obama administration to mount a new policy in Syria. But don’t expect one anytime soon.
In an interview on Thursday, a senior administration official played down a report in the The New York Times Monday that President Barack Obama might reconsider arming Syria’s rebels. The official confirmed that Obama rejected a proposal last year from four of his top national security advisers that the U.S. arm the rebels.
But he said a subsequent review by American intelligence officials had concluded that only a large infusion of sophisticated weaponry would tip the military balance in favor of the rebels.
“We have to assess what it would take to change the calculus,” the official said, “and hasten the transition.”
Repeating prior arguments, the official said the administration opposed supplying the rebels with anti-aircraft missiles out of concern that the weapon could fall into the hands of jihadists.
“God forbid a U.S. weapon be used to strike an Israeli passenger plane or land in Israel,” he said.
The problem, though, is that jihadists are growing increasingly well-armed and powerful inside Syria. The London Review of Books essay, “How to Start a Battalion in Five Easy Lessons,” begins with a description of a rebel commander withdrawing his fighters from an important rebel defensive position in Allepo because a donor in the Gulf is willing to provide him with more money and weapons.
“He says he will pay for our ammunition and we get to keep all the spoils of the fighting,” the rebel commander says. “We just have to supply him with videos.”
And a recent New Yorker piece described stepped-up assistance from Hezbollah.
“If Bashar goes down,” one Hezbollah commander told the magazine, “we’re next.”
And the White House official confirmed that Iranian assistance to the Assad regime is rising.
“The extent of Iranian support is stunning,” the official said. “They are all in. They are doing everything they can to support the Assad regime and putting in enormous amounts of arms and individuals.”
Why, then, isn’t the United States even partly in? In the London Review piece, rebels complained that the United States was blocking countries in the region from providing anti-aircraft missiles as well. The White House officials denied that was true and argued that surface-to-air missiles were finding their way into Syria.
But he said the administration was trying to learn lessons from the past, particularly Iraq.
“The United States has a long history of picking winners and losers based on the guy who speak English well,” the official said. “It’s just trying to learn the lesson and be humble.”
Learning is important, but we should do better than this. Our fear of radical Islamists is paralyzing our efforts. And we are missing a strategic opportunity to weaken Iran and Hezbollah.
We must take risks. If we do not wish to arm groups ourselves, we should at least allow countries in the region to do so. Sophisticated anti-tank missiles and other conventional weapons, not surface-to-air missiles, could help turn the tide.
We must trust Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar to sort out a confusing situation on the ground. And if we are serious about a diplomatic effort, we must redouble our efforts instead of deferring yet again to false Russian promises.
And lastly, the current approach is clearly a failure. The death count today in Syria is rapidly approaching the levels of the wars in Iraq and Bosnia. While it may not have a political cost in Washington, the White House is sending a clear message across the Middle East: American and Israeli lives matter, not Syrian ones. The figure is 70,000 and counting. That number will come back to haunt us.
David Rohde is a columnist for Reuters, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and a former reporter for The New York Times. His forthcoming book, "Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East" will be published in April 2013. David Rohde