Trudy Rubin: Syrian rebels want Obama to be tougher

Published: Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 5E

ATMA, Syria – Traveling inside war-wracked Syria on the U.S. Election Day was a stark reminder of how lucky we are to have a vibrant democracy, whatever its failings.

It was also a reminder that Syrian rebels who want democracy, not an Islamic emirate, hope a second-term President Barack Obama will finally move beyond anti-regime rhetoric and take firmer action to end Bashar Assad's rule.

I'm not certain their hopes will be met. But what I saw and heard in two forays into Syria, and meetings inside the Turkish border, has convinced me that Obama's timid first-term policy on Syria, if continued, will lead to a regional disaster. And it will further diminish waning U.S. influence in the Middle East.

I know Americans are sick of Mideast wars. Yet there's still a small chance U.S. leadership could prevent Syria from becoming a new mecca for militant jihadis. Obama's first big foreign-policy test will be whether he recognizes what needs to be done to prevent this. (Hint: It doesn't involve U.S. air strikes or putting American boots on the ground.)

Drive around northern Syria and you see that there is no government in charge. "Eighty-five percent of the country is not governed by the regime," says a concerned official in the capital of next-door Turkey, "but it is not governed by the opposition either. Syria now is a failed state."

Revolutionary councils – ordinary citizens trying to restore services – have been set up in many towns. Meeting with council members from Aleppo, Idlib and the Latakia suburbs, I heard the same story over and over: They have no resources, and neither the international community nor the United States is providing any.

A refugee camp of 8,000 displaced people, near the Turkish border, with rows of white tents and water-distribution tanks, is being run wholly by expatriate Syrians struggling to raise the funding. Turkey, already home to 100,000 Syrian refugees, can take no more, even as the number of civilians fleeing the shelling and bombing continues to soar.

U.S. officials insist Assad must go but have limited Washington's assistance to nonlethal aid to nonviolent civilians – namely, communications equipment and training courses. "We heard a lot that the U.S. would support us, but we didn't see anything on the ground," I was told by Suhair al-Atassi, a longtime secular opposition activist and lawyer from a famous political family.

Meantime, rebel military groups inside Syria have mushroomed. Militant religious fighters, while in the minority, find it easy to get funds from rich Gulf Arabs. Non-Islamist fighting groups, led by defecting Syrian military officers or ordinary civilians, go begging for weapons.

Efforts to create a central command of these militias – led by secular officers – have failed because they lack resources, such as anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons, which would enable them to create a de facto buffer zone along the border. The United States has refused to provide any arms, for fear they would go astray. But that gives the militants the upper hand.

When I met Atassi, she was headed for Doha, Qatar, to a meeting Thursday of Syrian opposition activists who hope to form a new Syrian national council drawn heavily from rebels within the country. This body could ultimately form a transitional government and serve as a conduit for international aid.

But without firm commitments from the United States, this new council will have no leverage. Moreover, unless the United States and allied countries provide secular military councils inside Syria with funds and arms, religious militias will multiply, Atassi says.

So, Obama must decide whether it's time to deliver aid to civilian and military groups inside Syria in hopes of ending the war sooner. Only firm Obama backing has any chance of convincing members of the regime, or their Russian backers, that it's time for Assad to go, Syrian activists tell me.

"We hope the Obama administration will really get involved now," said Atassi as she headed for her flight to Doha. "We hope this time they will keep their promises." Stay tuned.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Trudy Rubin



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