With diplomacy dead, US banks on Syrian rebel win

::::With Syrian diplomacy all but dead, the Obama
administration is shifting its focus on the civil war away from political
transition and toward helping the rebels defeat the Syrian regime on the
The U.S. still wants to avoid any military involvement, banking on a
complicated policy of indirect assistance to the rebels and hope that the
ragtag alliance of militias can demoralize President Bashar Assad's
better-armed forces and end the war without far greater casualties.
It's a scenario analysts see as unlikely, even as the opposition gains
ground in Aleppo, Damascus and elsewhere, and as the cadre of high-
level defections from Assad's government grows. Prime Minister Riad
Hijab and three other ministers became the latest to abandon Assad on
The defections are "the latest indication that Assad has lost control of
Syria and that the momentum is with the opposition forces and the
Syrian people," White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said.
"The regime is crumbling," State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell
In Aleppo, the rebels are exceeding the expectations of military experts.
Despite intense bombardment from warplanes, they've now withstood
two weeks of regime counterattacks and are clawing toward the city
center. Militiamen also are stepping up guerrilla-like forays in central
districts of Damascus once firmly in Assad's hands.
Those gains have given the Obama administration hope that the tide of
the war is turning — and without the need for the U.S. to reconsider its
opposition to airstrikes, no-fly zones or even weapons sales to the anti-
Assad forces.
And with U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan quitting his diplomatic efforts
and the rebels starting to carve out larger toeholds in Syrian territory, the
U.S. focus has changed accordingly.
Whereas once the U.S. hoped to see a cease-fire to end the fighting and
then Assad leave office eventually on his own, the talk now is of the
rebels driving him out of power by winning the war — or of Assad's
loyalists, in the face of more military setbacks, turning on their leader.
As the rebels gain ground and weaponry, the U.S. has increased its
humanitarian aid to $74 million and its "nonlethal" communications
assistance to $25 million. The administration has eased restrictions for
rebel fundraising in the United States.
It also has softened its support for the transitional plan crafted by Annan,
and agreed to by both the United States and Russia after a conference in
Geneva in June. The document aimed at establishing an interim
government of individuals chosen by both the Assad regime and the
opposition. Each would be able to veto candidates.
The arrangement was rejected immediately by many in the Syrian
opposition, and Ventrell relegated it on Monday to a "basis for a good
framework." He said the transitional authority should be chosen by the
opposition and "remnants of the regime that don't have blood on their
hands" — cutting out Assad and his senior government officials.
"The future of Syria is going to be for the Syrians to decide," he said.
Speaking last week, Ventrell said: "We are not at a point where we are
negotiating with the Assad regime. We are at a point where the
opposition is gaining ground and making plans for the day after."
The statements follow more than a year of Obama administration
officials speaking of bringing international diplomatic pressure to drive
Assad from office and meeting with multinational groups like the Friends
of Syria.
While officials maintain that they'd prefer a "peaceful political transition"
take place, they concede privately that the deaths of at least 19,000
Syrians over the past 17 months, the utter refusal by Assad to
compromise and the failure of diplomacy means more bloodshed may lie
With mediation efforts cut off, a rebel victory now appears among the
most feasible path forward for an end to Syria's war. And U.S. officials
are trying to plan for messier regime change scenarios than the six-point
plan advocated by Annan and adopted by no one in Syria.
The U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, held meetings with opposition
leaders in Cairo last week. Those followed consultations that the State
Department's Syria envoy, Fred Hof, held with activists and likeminded
governments in Europe a week before. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham
Clinton will talk to Syrian activists and Turkish officials in Istanbul this
weekend, rejecting proposals to turn her visit into another international
diplomatic forum.
Ventrell said the goal of much of the recent diplomacy was to help the
opposition come up with a post-Assad plan that would be as cohesive as
"There still has to be water, electricity and all the basic services,"
Ventrell said. "What will the government look like? How it will function
the day after? How will we ensure that (Syria) doesn't descend into
further sectarian chaos? How do we make it work? That's some of the
things we're working on."
The approach is one that American officials liken to a "soft landing." The
goal would be to avoid the power vacuum of post-Saddam Hussein's Iraq
by salvaging as many elements of the state as possible, and avoiding
new insurgencies from emerging.
"We want to get there in a way that's a softer landing," a U.S. official
said on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak
publicly on the matter. "We don't want to see the institutions just melt
But it's unclear how quick the post-Assad era might come — and at what
Most assessments see Syria's Assad making his stand in Damascus and
battling to the end to hold his capital. Others speculate that regime
loyalists could retreat to Alawite strongholds in northwest Syria, taking
with them their guns, tanks, helicopters and even chemical weapons.
Either situation could be extremely bloody. While Assad's forces are
stretched, his Republican Guard units backed by airpower remain
And even as Clinton and other officials speak of the inevitability of
opposition "safe zones" in Syria, the rebels have had to retreat from
every major city they've held so far. They've maintained control of some
rural areas bordering Turkey in the north, Lebanon in the west and Jordan
in the south, according to the American Syrian Coalition.
The effect of the defections could be limited, as well. Like most previous
regime members, those who fled Monday to Jordan were majority
Sunnis. Assad still has the backing of the minority Alawite clan who hold
most senior regime positions.
"It's politically important, but removing Assad and weakening his regime
involves a political and military approach," said Andrew Tabler, a Syria
expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "And it's the
relative success of the military approach to date that has caused this

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