On Thursday, at the Friends of Syria Conference in Rome, Secretary of State John Kerry abruptly reversed U.S. policy on Syria.
Much to the surprise of Members of the U.S. Congress—and possibly of the members of the Syrian opposition as well—Kerry announced that the U.S. will be supplying $60 million in food and medical supplies to the rebels fighting the brutal civil war against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The measure is likely to please neither Congress (which has been relentlessly brow-beaten by the White House over sequestration and budget cuts) nor the Syrian rebels, who want arms, not food, and in fact threatened to boycott the Rome conference out of frustration.
Republican lawmakers in Washington are deeply dismayed over the secrecy and the disservice done by the White House and the State Department to Congress. Some of them told The Hill they weren’t briefed ahead of Kerry’s announcement.
Senator Bob Corker (R–TN), the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had particularly good reason to be steamed. Corker’s staff had sought information from State on the agenda for the Rome meeting as late as 8 p.m. Wednesday and was told nothing. “So, we’re going to have a little discussion with them about that,” Corker told The Hill. “I mean, look, we probably support the policy. But we were a little disappointed that no head’s up was given.”
The $60 million in non-military aid commitment is a half-measure. The Syrian civil war has now gone on for almost two years, 70,000 people have died, and countries in the region are reeling from the repercussions. Turkey, where Kerry is stopping today, has over 200,000 Syrian refugees and has taken deadly shelling across its border with Syria. Turkey desperately wants the rebels to win quickly.
In Washington, however, President Obama singlehandedly overruled his first national security team—Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, CIA director David Petraeus, and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Martin Dempsey—who all argued for arming the rebels last summer. The line from the White House and the State Department has been that Assad would fall “any day now.”
The Obama Administration is dealing with Syria much the way it deals with domestic issues such as Head Start: by throwing money at it. It will not work.
Heritage Foundation research fellow Jim Phillips in a new Issue Brief argues that “maintaining a failing soft-power strategy against a hardened regime that launches air strikes and Scud missiles against its own people will only prolong the conflict, empower extremists in the opposition at the expense of moderates, and contribute to dangerous spillover effects that threaten Syria’s neighbors.”
The Obama Administration has no larger strategy for solving the crisis, as Kerry’s floundering performance in Europe clearly demonstrates.