May 25, 2013
With focus on opposition, US races against time on Syria
The United States is racing to finalize elements of its Syria strategy, planning new steps to shape and strengthen the still-fragmented opposition as signs build that the country is nearing a tipping point in the 20-month rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad.
Blocked at the United Nations by Russia and China, and wary of the growing influence of radical Islamists in the Syrian revolt, the Obama administration has forced a reorganization of the Syrian opposition into a new, broad coalition. It hopes the new coalition can secure stability after what US officials regard as the inevitable collapse of the Assad government.
But with events moving quickly on the battlefield and world leaders warning Assad against resorting to his stockpile of chemical weapons as a last-ditch tactic, diplomatic analysts say Syria's crisis threatens to spin out of control before the US-backed transition plan is in place.
"The horizon of the regime is quite a bit shorter than we imagined even three months ago, and I don't think the development of the opposition has kept pace," said Steven Heydemann, a Syria specialist at the US Institute of Peace.
To accelerate the planning, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will gather with allies and opposition representatives in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh next week. She is expected to announce that the United States recognizes the new coalition as "the legitimate representative" of the Syrian people - a symbolic endorsement of the group Washington hopes can mature into a transitional government.
The United States is also expected to offer more non-lethal aid to the rebels, while placing one of the most radical fighting groups, the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, on its blacklist of terrorist organizations. The action is meant to draw a clear line against the most extreme elements of the Islamist resistance, US officials say.
But US arms supplies for opposition fighters remain off the table for now - reflecting continued US reluctance to intervene directly in the conflict even as allies such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia step up their own weapons shipments.