So far nothing like that appears to be in the offing. "Assad must halt his campaign of killing and crimes against his own people now," President Obama said earlier this month. "He must step aside and allow a democratic transition to proceed immediately." But he showed little inclination to go farther.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did him one better. She worried aloud that weapons sent to the Syrian opposition could find their way to al Qaeda, and bemoaned the lack of "an opposition that is actually viable." SNC leader Burhan Ghalioun's recent statement that the group is prepared to collaborate with Hezbollah if need be probably won't assuage such fears.
Without a proper SNC presence in Washington, the burden of the opposition effort to shape policy has fallen on the shoulders of a group called the Syrian American Council, formed in 2005 to promote the development of democracy back in the homeland. The SAC started by trying to initiate a dialogue with the Baathist regime in Damascus. Last year, when Assad commanded his troops to open fire on peaceful demonstrations on the streets of Syrian cities, the SAC switched its emphasis to supporting the opposition.
Mahmoud Khattab, director of the SAC, says that his group has had many talks with U.S. officials in recent weeks. Lately the SAC has been pleading above all for Washington's support for the safe haven idea. So is anyone listening? "So far I haven't heard a clear plan from the U.S. about what they will do," says Khattab. "They keep talking about sanctions and peaceful solution. But the situation has been going on for 11 months now."
The Syrian opposition in the U.S. ought to have an easy job. Bashar has long been one of Washington's sworn enemies. Khattab, who notes that he and the SNC liaise on a regular basis, claims that their message is finding a warm reception in Congress (though it isn't always entirely apparent that this is the case).
There are deeper forces at work. The United States is understandably hesitant to intervene directly in Syria. The country is a tangle of sectarian and ethnic complexities that sits astride just about every strategic dilemma in the Middle East. The Baathist regime is a sworn enemy of Israel and a close friend of Iran. Assad's power base among the heterodox Alawite minority pits him against an increasingly bitter Sunni majority. Civil war in Syria could easily spark a regional conflagration, spilling over into neighboring Iraq, Lebanon, or Jordan.
"I'm a fan of the U.S.," says Syria expert Randa Slim. "I think they're playing it exactly right." She says that the Obama administration should beware getting too deeply involved. Most people in the region are already deeply suspicious of U.S. motives. The job of the Americans, she says, should be to marshal an international consensus, nudging the Europeans and others to lend more support to the opposition even while pressing it to become more inclusive and representative. "Leading from behind fits perfectly for a number of reasons," says Slim. Judging by their actions so far, it would seem that Clinton and Obama share this stance.
But didn't the U.S. support military action against Colonel Qaddafi? Sure. But Libya is relatively isolated, its population small. The National Transitional Council, the main opposition group, established itself just two months after the uprising against Qaddafi began, and boasted a relatively coherent leadership. Fighters loyal to the NTC managed to establish a defensible base area, in the eastern city Benghazi, early in the conflict. All this made it relatively easy for Washington to provide military support.
The situation in and around Syria bears little resemblance to this scenario. What's more, a comprehensive plan to aid the rebels depends on the good graces of Syria's neighbors. The most important of them is Turkey, whose long border with Syria is closest to many of the areas now in revolt. But so far Ankara has shown little inclination to get drawn into a Syrian conflict.