Obama faces tough choices in Syria

Obama faces tough choices in Syria

As the international peace plan in Syria faltered this week amid continued violence, the Obama administration faces difficult choices as it plots a path forward there.

The administration does not want to get into a military conflict in Syria or spark a larger civil war, but Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has shown little intention of abiding by the peace plan put forward by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.

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Administration officials called for tougher action in Syria this week, including hints at the use of force if Assad does not stop and steeper sanctions to further isolate Assad. But the White House says it still is opposed to any military action or arming the Syrian opposition as it weighs its options.

Defense hawks are clamoring for military action in Syria, and others in the Senate are also suggesting the United States must consider establishing safe havens and arming the opposition.

There are numerous obstacles no matter which route the administration chooses, from Russia’s thwarting of further UN Security Council action to the divided opposition movement and the larger regional issues concerning Iran.

The Syrian conflict, which has lasted more than a year and seen more than 9,000 Syrians killed, is now reaching a critical juncture with the peace plan teetering, analysts say.

The Obama administration has said that Assad must go, but it has not yet made clear how far it will go to make sure that happens, said Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

“The administration needs to make a decision about what it wants,” Rubin said. “Because you can’t keep giving last chances and maintaining credibility. If you keep delaying, all you’re doing is allowing Assad to kill.”

The Obama administration indicated it’s considering a stronger course of action in Syria this week, as reports of violence continued to come in.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said this week that the administration was “horrified” by reports of violations of the ceasefire, and is still considering its options. He reiterated that the administration remains opposed to providing arms.

Annan's spokesman said Friday the UN wanted to send 300 observers to Syria in an attempt to persuade Assad's forces to comply with the ceasefire.

The Obama administration has provided humanitarian and communications aid to the Syrian opposition and is working with them to present a more unified front.

“Our position has not changed, which is that we do not believe that is the right course of action because further militarization of Syria could lead to even more devastating consequences,” Carney said Thursday. “We believe there is still the possibility of the preferred outcome here, which is withdrawal by Assad's forces, a ceasefire withdrawal, and a political process that is peaceful.”

Richard Haass, a former senior State Department official and president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said it will be difficult to oust Assad from power by diplomacy alone.

"It's very hard to dislodge a tyrant who has a real base of support if he's willing to kill his own people,” Haass said in an interview with the BBC. “Unless you’re willing to go in there, essentially go to war with him … and really sit there for quite a while and build up a new state.”

Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonPapadopoulos claims he was pressured to sign plea deal Here's why Biden, Bernie and Beto are peaking The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Pass USMCA Coalition - Dems look for traction following Barr-Mueller findings MORE said at a meeting of the “Friends of Syria” group this week that “tougher actions” were needed against the Assad regime.

She called for stiffer sanctions that she said could push Assad to comply with the Annan peace plan, and hinted that more could be coming if Assad’s forces don’t lay down their arms.

“We have to keep Assad off balance by leaving options on the table,” Clinton said.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe joined in with a tougher line, as he said on France’s BFM television that if the peace plan “doesn't function, we have to envisage other methods," calling it the “last chance before civil war.”

In Congress, the call for more action in Syria has grown after the violence did not stop with the ceasefire.

Sens. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainSenate GOP eyes probes into 2016 issues 'swept under the rug' Gallego won't seek Ariz. Senate seat, clearing Dem path for Kelly Khizr Khan blasts Trump's McCain attacks: 'How dare this Russian-tainted president disrespects our hero' MORE (R-Ariz.), Joe Lieberman (I-Ct.) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Pass USMCA Coalition - Dems look for traction following Barr-Mueller findings Senate GOP eyes probes into 2016 issues 'swept under the rug' Top Senate Judiciary Dem asks Barr to hand over full Mueller report by April 1 MORE (R-S.C.) have slammed the administration and international community for months for not doing enough in Syria, as they were the first to call for air strikes and arming the rebels.

This week they labeled the Annan peace plan a “failure” and said “the only way to stop Assad’s campaign of slaughter is… to help the Syrian opposition change the military balance of power on the ground.”

Other senators are more hesitant to openly call for military action, but there are signs the ground is shifting. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John KerryJohn Forbes KerryJam-packed primary poses a serious threat to Democrats in 2020 Romney helps GOP look for new path on climate change Biden leads CNN poll, but Harris, Sanders on the rise MORE (D-Mass.) said Thursday the Obama administration should consider establishing safe zones, which would “entail military action.” Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerTrump keeps tight grip on GOP Brexit and exit: A transatlantic comparison Sasse’s jabs at Trump spark talk of primary challenger MORE (R-Tenn.) said that he felt the “mainstream” viewpoint in the Senate now backed arming the rebels.

One of the biggest obstacles for the Obama administration is Russia, which has supported the ceasefire but has also backed Assad and allegedly provided arms to the Syrian army.

While Obama administration officials have frequently accused Russia of being complicit in the deaths of Syrians, they’ve also said they won’t take stronger action without the international community’s backing, something Russia remains opposed to allowing.

Russia and China, who has joined the Russians vetoing more UN action, were invited to this week’s Friends of Syria meeting, but the countries did not attend.

Murhaf Jouejati, a professor at National Defense University specializing in the Middle East, said at a Senate hearing Thursday that the sanctions in place have harmed the Syrian regime, cutting off a third of its oil exports and devaluing its currency. But he added that sanctions alone will not lead to Assad’s downfall.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the Pentagon was prepared to take military action in Syria if called upon, including actions to establish safe havens. “We must be prepared to take whatever action is required,” Panetta said at a House hearing on Syria Thursday.

“The United States is committed to holding the Syrian regime to its obligations. We are leading an international effort to help stop the violence and support a peaceful political transition in Syria,” Panetta said. “We know achieving that end is a tough task. From every angle, the situation in Syria is enormously complex. There is no silver bullet. I wish there was, but there isn't.”