‘A bunch of frustrated people’ in the Obama administration are floating a bold new plan for Syria

The Obama administration is weighing a “plan B” for Syria should
the cessation of hostilities currently in place between rebels and the regime begin to unravel, The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday.

Plans to supply the moderate-opposition forces with more powerful weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, are apparently being drafted by the CIA, along with a proposal to send an additional 250 US special-operations forces into Syria to advise the forces.

“There has been a big debate inside the administration on how much to do to help turn the tide of the Syrian war,” geopolitical expert Ian Bremmer, the president of Eurasia Group, told Business Insider on Wednesday.

He continued: “So part of this is a bunch of frustrated people inside the administration (and John Kerry is one) … floating their preferred option to get the rebels some support.”

Secretary of State John Kerry has pestered President Barack Obama “so many times to ramp up the military mission” in Syria that “the president stipulated that only the secretary of defence could bring him military proposals,” Bloomberg View’s Josh Rogin reported on Wednesday.

Surface-to-air missiles are not new in Syria — Qatar has reportedly sent them to various opposition factions, and the Islamist rebel group Ahrar al-Sham and Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra both claim to have them.

But Obama has so far refused to supply US-backed rebels with these weapons directly, and experts are sceptical that he would follow through on such a dramatic policy shift in the remaining months of his tenure.

“The White House doesn’t mind a little tough talk to keep opponents guessing,” Bremmer said. “But ultimately, Obama has already recognised that he’s handing off the Syria war to the next president. He’s not happy about it. But he’s not going to significantly escalate in his closing months.”

‘Let’s not hold our breath’

Andrew Tabler, a Syria and US policy expert at the Washington Institute, was also bearish at the possibility of escalation from the US.

“We have heard such things before, so let’s not hold our breath,” Tabler told Business Insider on Wednesday.

As many analysts have noted, it is not the first time Obama administration officials have floated the idea of ramping up support for Syria’s more moderate rebel groups. And according to Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle East politics and international relations at the London School of Economics, this new “plan B” is neither novel nor a secret.

“There is nothing mysterious about it,” Gerges told Business Insider in an email. “US officials have publicly made it clear that if Geneva fails they would revert to plan B, which means providing qualitative weapons, including MANPADS to the Syrian rebels.”

The fact that certain details of the plan were leaked, however, “serves a two-pronged purpose,” Gerges said — “to exert pressure on the Russians and to reassure critics at home and in the region that the Obama administration has not outsourced the Syrian problem to Russia.”
But Russia has yet to prove that it is not completely beholden to the embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who — fresh off of his victory over the terrorist group ISIS at Palmyra — has only grown more defiant leading up to the latest round of peace talks.

“Such plans are the result of the difficulties diplomats are trying to overcome in Geneva,” said Tabler of the Washington Institute.

He continued:

President Assad has become extremely rigid in his negotiating stance, and is attempting to impose a political solution without a “transition.” This is on the back of substantial military support from Russia, who wants a transition of sorts with Bashar al-Assad as president.

That makes it
unlikely that the threat of introducing MANPADS into the conflict will impact Moscow’s tactics there. And some analysts say doing so might give Russia and Assad more leverage to argue that the US is hindering, rather than promoting, peace.
“It’s hard to distance the US from a rebel shoot-down of a Russian jet when the administration is floating introducing MANPADS to the battlefield,” said Michael Pregent, a terrorism analyst and former US Army intelligence officer in Iraq. “It gives Russia, Iran, and Assad more leverage.”

But it could also give Kerry important leverage of his own at Geneva, said Fred Hof, a former special adviser for transition in Syria under then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“As a practical matter, unless Syrian civilians are taken off the bullseye, there can be no progress toward a political settlement in Syria,” Hof told Business Insider. “SAMs or MANPADS would not turn the tide of battle decisively in Syria, but what they could do is make it more difficult for Assad regime and Russian pilots to commit war crimes every time they take off.”

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