With the Bashar al-Assad regime badly bloodied by last week’s assassination of its top security officials and fierce fighting over the weekend in both Damascus and Aleppo, the administration of President Barack Obama is being pressed on the US role in the presumed end-game.
On one side, neo-conservatives and other hawks have been urging varying forms of military intervention since the uprising began some 16 months ago. They insist that Washington should at least help establish air-patrolled safe zones in border regions to protect fleeing civilians, if not begin providing weapons directly to the armed opposition in order to better "shape the outcome", as the Wall Street Journal editorial writers put it Monday.
"It's not a question of sending Nato (sic) troops to fight in Syria - Syrians have shown they don't need foreign troops to die for them," wrote former Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, now with the American Enterprise Institute, and Freedom House board member Mark Palmer in the London Sunday Times. "(B)ut they do need better weapons and material."
On the other side, regional experts are urging Obama to continue resisting any military intervention, including supplying arms to what all agree is a highly fragmented opposition whose sole point of unity is hatred for the regime.
"At this point, the flow of weapons may be as unstoppable as the descent into protracted insurgency and civil war, but that doesn’t mean that the US should heedlessly throw more gasoline on the fire," according to Marc Lynch, who heads the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University.
"At the most, it should continue its efforts to help shape some form of coherent political and strategic control over these newly armed groups," he wrote on his foreignpolicy.com blog.
"(T)he US should be focusing on supporting the Syrian opposition politically, mitigating the worst effects of the civil war and insurgency, pushing to bring Syrian war criminals to justice, and maintaining its pressure on Assad through sanctions and diplomatic isolation."
'Critical tipping point'
The latest round of advice comes in the wake of last week's third veto in a row by Russia and China of a UN Security Council resolution threatening Syrian authorities with additional sanctions and stunning rebel military advances that have persuaded many observers here that Assad’s downfall is no longer a matter of if, but rather of when.
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Those advances included the bombing of a meeting of the regime's "crisis-management group", in which at least four top security officials, including the ministers of defence and interior, were killed; the assertion of Free Syrian Army (FSA) control over checkpoints along the Syria’s borders with Turkey and Iraq; and the outbreak of bitter fighting for the first time in both Damascus and Aleppo, long considered regime strongholds.
In addition, the reported redeployment of Syrian troops from the Golan Heights region to the capital has been seen as a new indication that the regime is feeling increasingly vulnerable.
"The government doesn't have enough troops to control the countryside," Jeffrey White, a former senior Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) Middle East analyst, told a briefing at the Centre for the National Interest late last week just before the bombing.
He said clashes between the armed opposition and the army hit a record high of 256 in June and could reach 400 this month. If that rate of operational intensity continues or gets worse, he said, the army's collapse will become more likely.
"It is very, very hard to avoid the conclusion that the stalemate of the past 15, 16 months has now been decisively broken," Stephen Heydemann, a Middle East expert at the US Institute of Peace (USIP), told a meeting of the Middle East Policy Council (MEPC) Monday. "We have arrived at a critical tipping point."
At the same time, Heydemann, echoing other regional specialists, stressed that "it would be a severe mistake to think that the end of the regime is close at hand," given its superior weaponry, as well as its persistent support among key minority communities.
Prospects for success?
Until now, Washington's strategy has favoured a combination of economic sanctions and diplomacy - directed, in particular, at persuading Russia to halt its backing for Assad, and at mobilising international support for the opposition, notably in the form of a "Friends of the Syrian People" forum that includes, among others NATO and Arab League members, outside the UN Security Council - to hasten Assad's departure.
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In addition, it has winked at the supply by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey of arms to the rebels, which, according to White, intensified in April and May.
It also deployed CIA operatives to border areas in Turkey and Jordan to both assess the various opposition factions that are receiving arms and, according to some accounts, influence the direction of that supply to groups considered more compatible with Western interests.
The CIA has also provided communications equipment and training to various armed factions in order to improve their command-and-control capabilities.
At the same time, Washington has exerted considerable pressure on Iraq, Egypt, and other countries close to Syria to prevent their air space or territory from being used to re-supply the regime with weapons from Iran, according to a Journal account published Monday.
In recent weeks, Washington has become especially concerned about Syria's large chemical weapons stockpile and the possibility that some of it could fall - or be delivered - into the hands of extremist Islamist rebel groups or Lebanon's Hezbollah, which is aligned with the regime. Pentagon officials have reportedly been consulting with Israeli counterparts about contingency plans for seizing or destroying the weapons under certain circumstances.
In the wake of the past week's events, the New York Times reported Sunday that the administration has abandoned efforts at the UN to gain Russia's support for Assad's departure, and now intends to intensify its support for the rebels short of supplying them with weapons or other forms of lethal assistance and step up ongoing planning with the political opposition - as divided as it is -and the Friends group for a stable post-Assad transition.
According to Heydemann, who has quietly led a six-month-old government-funded USIP project called "The Day After" involving 40 representatives of various Syrian opposition factions, the prospects for such a transition will be significantly improved by engaging more with the armed opposition, especially in building stronger command-and-control mechanisms that can not only improve its performance but also reduce the chances that it would commit the kinds of violence that would deepen sectarian divides.
But Paul Pillar, a former top CIA Middle East analyst now at Georgetown University, warned against US efforts to try to "stage-manage the emergence of a new political order and picking winners and losers in it", noting that Washington's last effort to do so - in Iraq - "should have taught us how dim would be the prospects for success…"
A version of this story was first published by Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency.