WASHINGTON — When President Barack Obama rebuffed four of his top national security officials who wanted to arm the rebels in Syria last fall, it put an end to a debate of several months over how aggressively Washington should respond to the strife there that has now left nearly 70,000 dead.
But the decision also left the White House with no clear strategy to resolve a crisis that has bedeviled it since a popular uprising erupted against President Bashar Assad almost two years ago. Despite an American program of nonlethal assistance to the opponents of the Syrian government and $365 million in humanitarian aid, Obama appears to be running out of ways to speed Assad’s exit.
With conditions continuing to deteriorate, officials said, the president could reopen the debate over providing weapons to select members of the resistance in an effort to break the impasse in Syria. The question is whether a wary Obama, surrounded by a new national security team, would come to a different conclusion.
“This is not a closed decision,” a senior administration official said. “As the situation evolves, as our confidence increases, we might revisit it.”
Obama’s decision not to provide arms when the proposal was broached before the November election, officials said, was driven by his reluctance to get drawn into a proxy war and by his fear that the weapons would end up in unreliable hands, where they could be used against civilians or Israeli and American interests.
As the United States struggles to formulate a policy, however, Assad has given no sign that he is ready to yield power, and the Syrian resistance has been adamant that it will not negotiate a transition in which he has a role.
Even if Assad was overthrown, the convulsion could fragment Syria along sectarian and ethnic lines, each supported by competing outside powers, said Paul Salem, who runs the Middle East office of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Syria,” he said, “is in the process, not of transitioning, but disintegrating.”
On Monday, European Union foreign ministers decided against easing an arms moratorium despite objections by Britain. In what appeared to be a compromise, the ministers agreed to “provide greater nonlethal support and technical assistance for the protection of civilians,” according to the EU’s website.
As the Syria conflict has unfolded, the State Department has funneled $50 million of nonlethal assistance to the Syrian opposition, including satellite telephones, radios, broadcasting equipment, computers, survival equipment and related training. This support, officials say, has helped Syrians opposed to the Assad government communicate with one another and with the outside world, despite efforts by Syrian forces to target rebel communications using equipment supplied by Iran. An FM radio network is to connect broadcasting operations in several Syrian cities in the next several days. The State Department has also helped train local councils in areas freed from the Syrian government’s control.