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September 4, 2015

McCain’s Syria Visit Won’t Make Obama’s Path Forward Easier

Much has been made about Sen. John McCain’s previously unannounced trip to Syria on Monday, yet the actual effects of such a visit on the administration’s larger approach to the embattled nation are likely to be minimal at best.

That’s not to say that McCain’s crossing of the Turkish-Syrian border was not symbolically important. He is the highest-ranking American official to visit Syria since strife in the nation escalated two years ago. But McCain long has been a proponent of arming Syrian rebels; he was for doing so with rebels in Libya as well. He has met on multiple occasions with Syrian rebels at the border, just on the Turkish side of the line, which is where the coordinated rebel forces are based.

The Obama administration has been loath to commit in any real way to a course of action, and even the president’s decision to set a “red line” — the use of biological weapons that would force his hand — has been contentious and lamented by officials, according to a New York Times account earlier this month.  Last week, as CQ Roll Call’s Emily Cadei reported, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a bill that backs a more aggressive approach to American engagement in Syria, including the arming of “vetted” rebels.

Obama spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri said Tuesday the State Department was aware of McCain’s trip to Syria. And one Syrian activist told CNN that McCain only travelled about 1 kilometer into Syrian territory.

But the picture in Syria is very complicated for Obama. For example, there has been an uptick in recent polls suggesting that Americans are becoming more concerned about the country’s civil war, but not so concerned that they want the U.S. to commit militarily.

A recent New Yorker cover story from Dexter Filkins is worth the read and underscores the complexity and potential pitfalls of arming a rebellion that is fractured and potentially extreme in nature. Moreover, the loosely tied together rebel forces, led by Gen. Salim Idris, with whom McCain met, might not even be the strongest rebel group in the region. An al-Qaida spin-off group, according to Filkins’ reporting, has grown in strength and savvy from previous failures in places such as Iraq.

Some salient paragraphs on the rebels from that report:

In recent months, with urging from the U.S. and its allies, a large number of the estimated seventy thousand rebel fighters have been brought together under a joint military command, a coalition of thirty armed groups, which American officials imagine as a nascent national army. The joint command, based just inside Turkey, is led by General Salim Idris, a high-ranking defector from Assad’s regime. Proponents of greater aid for the rebels have suggested that arms and money be sent through Idris, to solidify his command. A senior American official who works on Syria policy said that approximately half of the money now flowing to the rebels goes through the joint command, and that Idris has begun to coördinate operations. “This is a war of attrition, and the government is losing,’’ the official said. “It doesn’t mean it is going to collapse tomorrow, but the trend lines are negative.”

Obama has made clear, however, that he has little confidence in the rebels, arguing that they are ideologically fractured, that the rebellion lacks a coherent structure, and that individual groups would be impossible to control and would probably fight each other. Some of the guns, he believes, could ultimately make their way to Islamist groups. Idris has pointedly excluded some extremists from the coalition, including Al Nusra and another collection of hard-line Islamist groups, the Syrian Islamic Front. (Al Nusra, for its part, never asked to join up.) But, according to American officials and nongovernmental groups that work in the region, the overwhelming majority of the rebels are fighting for an Islamic republic. Al Nusra, like the other Al Qaeda affiliates, wants to do away with the Syrian state altogether and reëstablish the Islamic caliphate. “The Islamists are the majority,’’ Elizabeth O’Bagy, an analyst for the Institute for the Study of War who has travelled to rebel-held areas several times, said. The small number of non-Islamists among the rebels are often socialists, she told me, and are referred to by their peers with an English word: “hippies.”

Just because the situation on the ground is complicated, however, doesn’t mean the administration won’t have to act if the mass killing of Syrians continues. It just means that the likelihood of failing in whatever it might do might be significantly higher, diplomatic visits from McCain or not.

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