Analysts: Public outlook on Syria ignores inconvenient truths

At a public talk this month, a European Union official eschewed the bland language of diplomacy and told some hard truths about Syria: that the West had ignored Arab leaders’ warnings that President Bashar Assad wouldn’t go easily, that the opposition is in no shape to negotiate and that humanitarian aid reaches only a fraction of the needy.

“Wishful thinking harms people,” warned Kristalina Georgieva, the EU commissioner for international cooperation, humanitarian aid and crisis response, speaking at the New America Foundation, a public policy institute in Washington. “Because of wishful thinking, people die.”

Yet blunt assessments of the situation in Syria are still rare in Washington, where Obama administration officials cling to the dream that a moderate opposition can coalesce, beat back al Qaida extremists and shape Syria into a pluralistic democracy after Assad exits via a negotiated transition.

In reality, none of the ground conditions for such an outcome are in place, according to analysts who monitor the country’s civil war, which is in its third year with a death toll of more than 115,000. And with al Qaida and other militant Islamists dominating the rebel side, it’s unclear whether there’s even the political will anymore to see the opposition carry out the stated U.S. policy goal of toppling Assad.

“Anyone paying attention to the rise of radicals has to be coming to these conclusions. Assad is better for America than a jihadist win,” said Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and the author of the blog Syria Comment.

Though U.S. officials privately acknowledge many of the obstacles that Georgieva raised in her talk, there’s little such discussion in public. At White House and State Department briefings, in congressional hearings and at think tank events, U.S. officials keep pushing a message that the Syrian opposition is becoming more unified, moderate forces will prevail and Assad must go. There’s seldom an answer to the crucial question of who or what would replace him.

Day after day, the State Department gives updates on preparations for a long-delayed peace conference in Geneva, even though opposition leaders have said they won’t attend.

Even if they were to show, they’d be representing shell organizations with little sway in the conflict. The civilian Syrian Opposition Coalition never had much constituency in the country, and the armed Supreme Military Command has seen its fighting core drift away this month to join Islamist rebel alliances.

And, of course, Assad rejects the very objective of such an undertaking – his departure – so there’s little reason to expect negotiations on that topic, especially now that the regime is once again in the pole position as the rebels turn against one another and Washington takes military intervention off the table as long as a deal to remove chemical weapons holds.

Nevertheless, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki says the so-called “Geneva 2” conference will be in mid-November, and would be based on principles that were agreed to at a first Geneva gathering in June 2012. The same old sticking point remains: The opposition won’t go unless Assad’s departure is a precondition; the regime rejects any such preconditions.

At times, the U.S. administration’s talking points seem so at odds with reality that exasperated journalists have taken to challenging them in tense exchanges.

At Thursday’s State Department briefing, print and television journalists shredded U.S. policy on Syria, demanding to know how there could be plans for Geneva when the opposition, in the journalists’ words, “is just in complete free-fall, complete collapse” and “the outcome is already handicapped” by Assad’s refusal to step down.

Even if the Geneva summit did come to fruition, an Arab newspaper columnist chimed in, any deal brokered by the political opposition would be “nixed by those who are really effective on the ground, which control territory and have the guns and so on.”

“We’re not naive about how challenging it is,” Psaki said. “But still, given the choices, this remains the best option.”

Analysts of the Syrian conflict say the problem isn’t so much naivete as a willful blindness. The U.S. strategic interest in Syria has narrowed to chemical weapons, and virtually every public opinion poll on the topic of Syria finds that the American public doesn’t want any deeper commitment. That seems to be fine with President Barack Obama, who’s refused to get dragged into a new Middle East conflict as the U.S. disentangles from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Obama’s reluctance to wade into Syria has ripple effects across the Atlantic, where European nations might have more open debates on the conflict but “don’t lead, either,” said Volker Perthes, the director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.

“Mostly, we’ve seen parliaments looking at what Russia and the United States are doing, then wondering how they should react,” Perthes said.

Like the United States, he added, Europe doesn’t see any obvious solution to the crisis and feels safe acting only on the chemical weapons issue: “It’s embarrassing us all. We don’t really know what to do about it.”

Even the EU commissioner Georgieva, for all her outspokenness, conceded there was no clear-cut solution. She advocated being more inclusive of Assad’s close ally Iran in international discussions, suggested using Syria’s frozen assets to help pay for humanitarian relief for the millions of people displaced by the conflict and urged a cease-fire so that chemical weapons inspectors and humanitarian workers can do their jobs more safely.

While Georgieva couldn’t offer a blueprint for a broader political solution – and she pointed out that it’s not her job, as a humanitarian advocate – she emphasized that the starting point must be a “realistic assessment” of the conflict and a sober look at the unintended consequences of any international involvement.

Her remarks were so frank that the moderator, Leila Hilal, a Syrian-American scholar who’s the director of New America’s Middle East Task Force, felt compelled to thank her for her “candid comments,” particularly on the magnitude and challenges of the humanitarian crisis.

“So many people came away from that event saying, ‘I wish U.S. politicians talked like her,’ ” Hilal said later.

Matthew Schofield contributed to this article from Berlin.