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US Gaming Out Strategies on Syria

The Arab League monitoring process in Syria has reached tragicomic proportions. Security forces are now killing protesters within a couple blocks of the monitors, and the monitors do their best not to notice. This is a Baghdad Bob-level of ignorance of one’s surroundings.

Amid all of this, Josh Rogin at The Cable reports on some behind-the-scenes maneuvering by the Obama Administration to help the Syrian opposition.

As the violence in Syria spirals out of control, top officials in President Barack Obama’s administration are quietly preparing options for how to assist the Syrian opposition, including gaming out the unlikely option of setting up a no-fly zone in Syria and preparing for another major diplomatic initiative […]

The Bashar al Assad regime is a “dead man walking,” State Department official Fred Hof said this month. So the administration is now ramping up its policymaking machinery on the issue. After several weeks of having no top-level administration meetings to discuss the Syria crisis, the National Security Council (NSC) has begun an informal, quiet interagency process to create and collect options for aiding the Syrian opposition, two administration officials confirmed to The Cable.

The process, led by NSC Senior Director Steve Simon, involves only a few select officials from State, Defense, Treasury, and other relevant agencies. The group is unusually small, presumably to prevent media leaks, and the administration is not using the normal process of Interagency Policy Committee (IPC), Deputies Committee (DC), or Principals Committee (PC) meetings, the officials said. Another key official inside the discussions is Hof, who is leading the interactions with Syrian opposition leaders and U.S. allies.

The options that are under consideration include establishing a humanitarian corridor or safe zone for civilians in Syria along the Turkish border, extending humanitarian aid to the Syrian rebels, providing medical aid to Syrian clinics, engaging more with the external and internal opposition, forming an international contact group, or appointing a special coordinator for working with the Syrian opposition (as was done in Libya), according to the two officials, both of whom are familiar with the discussions but not in attendance at the meetings.

This definitely remains far back of the options acted upon in Libya, but each of them have their merits. Constructive engagement and support like this could at least sustain the opposition forces as they plunge into what increasingly looks like a civil war. I think the White House sees the options for intervention as far too delicate at this stage. Unlike Libya, Syria is far more directly engaged in a regional power struggle in the Middle East, and the implications of US involvement would not be predictable.

But it’s unclear whether these smaller steps can even get implemented. A humanitarian corridor would be vulnerable to attack without air support. And anything in the name of “protecting civilians” would probably end up having to get pre-cleared by the Arab League, which is in the midst of whitewashing the crimes of the Assad regime. I wouldn’t expect anything before the Arab League released its post-monitoring report on January 20. At that point, maybe the UN gets involved with humanitarian assistance, provided that Russia or China doesn’t veto at the Security Council (a big if).

It’s hard to look at the international response to Syria and regard it as anything but impotent. And yet, compared to the alternatives, that may be the only response available.

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David Dayen

David Dayen