Analysts See Shift In U.S. Response To Syrian Conflict

Secretary of State John Kerry's visit to the Middle East last week marked a small but, some believe, significant shift in American policy on Syria. On the surface, the U.S. has announced it is stepping up aid to the Syrian opposition and its armed wing. But look closely, analysts say, and you'll see that the U.S. is more willing to tip the scales against the Syrian regime.

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Let's turn our focus now to the eastern Mediterranean where a civil war continues in Syria. Some analysts see signs of a subtle shift in U.S. efforts to end that war. Secretary of State John Kerry visited the region last week. He said the United States is increasing aid to the Syrian opposition and to its armed wing. And a careful reading of Kerry's remarks offers hints of more action.

Here's NPR's Kelly McEvers.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: To understand U.S. policy on Syria, there are two key words you need to know: ratchet and calculus. Ratchet up pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to change his calculus and convince him to leave his post.

In an interview with NPR's Michele Kelemen, Secretary of State Kerry not only acknowledged that other countries are already ratcheting, by providing arms to the rebels trying to bring down Assad; but for the first time, he issued an or-else to Assad if he won't agree to step aside.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: The immediate answer is not to empower more killing. It is rather to say to President Assad, there is a solution. Now, if Assad doesn't want that, then he's asking, obviously, for yet another ratcheting up of other countries and other efforts.

MCEVERS: While it might sound a bit vague, analysts say those other efforts could mean more arms and more U.S. involvement in the effort to deliver those arms. Ambassador Fred Hof used to head Syria policy at the State Department and now is a fellow at the Atlantic Council. He says, up till now, the U.S. had been adamant that it will not get involved militarily.

FRED HOF: If you're a person like Bashar al-Assad, those words are not exactly interpreted in a humane, decent way. They're often interpreted as license.

MCEVERS: It's understandable why the Obama administration is against military intervention, analysts say. It wants to avoid the mistakes of Iraq, where intervention brought chaos, and Afghanistan, where a policy of arming anti-Soviet rebels in the 1980s ultimately backfired, leading to the creation of Al Qaida.

The White House is also wary of being part of a proxy war in Syria, where analysts say the U.S., Europe, Gulf Arab countries, and Turkey would be pitted against Assad's main allies, Russia and Iran. Up til now the U.S. had hoped to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin to abandon Assad and pressure him to step down. But now it's clear that that effort has failed, says Randa Slim of the Middle East Institute.

RANDA SLIM: I think there is more and more realization that Putin is just unwilling to play this role and is seeing, in Syria, a replay of the old Cold War confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union.

MCEVERS: Steve Heydemann is a senior Middle East adviser for the U.S. Institute for Peace. He says the policy change is also attributable to Kerry himself, who personally led the push for the U.S. to engage Assad back in 2008. Now that it's clear that didn't work, Kerry wants to try a new approach.

STEVE HEYDEMANN: I do think he feels that he has a particular obligation to shifting U.S. policy in ways that really do acknowledge that Assad is not a reformer, that he is not going to change, and that he needs to be removed from power.

MCEVERS: Heydemann says what's important now is how the U.S. ratchets up the pressure on Assad. On the political side, the next step is for the Syrian opposition to form a transitional government, and for Western capitals to recognize this government as legitimate. On the military side, it will take rebel gains on the battlefield to put real pressure on Assad.

The New York Times and other media have reported that U.S. ally Saudi Arabia has been buying infantry weapons such as lightweight artillery from Croatia and sending them to the Syrian rebels. Joe Holliday is a former infantry and intelligence officer who researches Syria at the Institute for the Study of War. He says these new weapons could help a little, but not a lot. Holliday.

JOE HOLLIDAY: So this is the type of weapon that will help the rebels take over some the regimes' checkpoints or fortified strong points and street corners that they might have control over. But the question is whether they can translate those tactical gains into operational victories across the country.

MCEVERS: If the U.S. and its allies really want to change Assad's calculus by pressuring him on the battlefield, Holliday says, they'll have to do more than just send weapons.

HOLLIDAY: So I really think the next step here has to do with, sort of, organization and collective management of the campaign as much as it does with weapons.

MCEVERS: Meaning helping the Syrian rebels unite, offering training and intelligence so they can form a more cohesive battle plan. All the analysts we spoke to agreed the U.S. has done poorly at such efforts in the past, usually by overstepping or trying to own the process and determine the outcome. The key, they all say, is to let Syrians lead the charge but to understand that doing nothing is no longer an option. Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Beirut.

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