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May 1, 2013 6:41 pm
The Obama administration is orchestrating a fresh diplomatic push with Russia over Syria, as Washington tries to respond to the new evidence about use of chemical weapons in the two- year-old conflict.
The renewed effort to get Russia to loosen its support for the Syrian regime, which includes more direct contacts between presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin, reflects the continued deep reluctance of the administration to get directly involved in the Syrian civil war, which has claimed at least 70,000 lives.
At the same time, the Obama administration is discussing with allies whether to provide arms to moderate rebel groups in Syria, a step that will become more likely if there is no sign that Russia is shifting position.
Although the disclosure last week that US intelligence believes chemical weapons have been used in Syria has increased the pressure on Washington to intervene, public opinion remains strongly against US involvement in a new Middle East war.
Mr Obama has made it clear in recent days that he will not be rushed into swift action. On Tuesday, he said that if the use of chemical weapons were proved, “we would have to rethink the range of options that are available to us”. However, he added that the evidence about chemical weapons use was not yet conclusive.
Tom Donilon, US national security adviser, visited Moscow two weeks ago, while John Kerry, secretary of state, is due to travel to Russia next week. At the same time, Mr Obama is making a stronger effort to engage directly with Mr Putin. The two leaders spoke on the phone earlier this week about Syria, and are due to hold two direct meetings over the next four months, including at the June G8 summit.
Administration officials believe that if the evidence of chemical weapons use can be strengthened, they will have an opportunity to change Mr Putin’s calculus on the Syrian conflict. They insist that the US is not trying to undercut Russian interests in the Middle East and that Moscow would have a voice in the process to decide a post-Assad regime.
At his press conference on Tuesday, Mr Obama argued that strong international support would be needed before the US would undertake more decisive action. “If we end up rushing to judgment without hard, effective evidence, then we may find ourselves in the position where we can’t mobilise the international community to support what we do,” he said.
The disclosure about chemical weapons has intensified the debate within the administration about military options in Syria, especially whether to arm some of the rebel groups.
Advocates of providing arms say that time is running out to give the more moderate elements of the opposition a decisive edge, amid signs that Islamist radicals are gaining ground within their ranks. Yet privately, senior administration officials caution against expecting any big changes in approach in the short term.
The new debate in the US comes at the same time as Britain and France are pressing the EU to abandon aspects of the EU’s sanctions on Syria that could allow arms to be transferred to moderate rebel forces at a later date.
British officials said on Thursday that EU foreign ministers would have to make a decision by the end of May on whether to allow a more permissive sanctions regime that would allow the UK and France to transfer arms to the rebels.
The officials said that Britain and France were trying to win round resistant EU states by saying they would not transfer those arms immediately after the sanctions policy was changed.
While debate about arming the Syrian rebels continues, there appears to be much less support within the administration for imposing a no-fly zone – the suggested approach of Senator John McCain, the leading advocate for greater US involvement in the conflict.
Speaking on Tuesday, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said that imposing a no-fly zone would have only limited impact on the conflict on the ground, because 90 per cent of the fighting was being conducted by ground forces.
He said it would be a very complicated, expensive and dangerous military operation, which might also encourage Syria to spread the conflict beyond its own borders. “I have to assume that the potential adversary is not going to just sit back and allow us to impose our will on them,” he said, suggesting that Syria might then threaten Turkey or Israel.
Gen Dempsey said he was “cautious” about US military intervention in the conflict because it was unlikely to “produce the kind of outcome I think that not only members of Congress but all of us would desire, which is an end to the violence, some kind of political reconciliation among the parties, and a stable Syria”.
European government officials told the FT on Wednesday that they believe the US administration is considering a shift in policy on Syria and transferring arms to the moderate forces in the Syrian opposition led by General Selim Idriss..
“What’s being looked at by the US is not the idea of supplying a huge amount of arms in a way that can change the nature of the conflict,” said an official. “Frankly, there are plenty of arms in the country already. The key point is to transfer arms to Idriss so that the moderates can become bigger players on the ground. We all want the managers of the uprising to be the moderates, not the extremists.”
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