Ahmed al-Jarba, the president of the Syrian National Coalition, and Brig. Gen. Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir, the top man of the opposition Supreme Military Council, are currently engaged in the most important foreign delegation of their lives. But, as their week-long visit to Washington draws to a close, they are starting to run out of time in their main objective: convincing the United States to begin supplying units of the Free Syrian Army (under the leadership of Bashir's Supreme Military Council) with the man-portable anti-aircraft weaponry that they so desperately need to counter Bashar al-Assad's free-flying air force.
Jarba and Bashir have been in Washington since last week, and both have met with some very powerful people, including the chairman and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the two senior members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator John McCain, and Secretary of State John Kerry.
At the time of this writing, Jarba was scheduled to meet with National Security Advisor Susan Rice, with the hope that President Barack Obama would eventually drop by and participate. If in fact this plan holds, it will provide Jarba with the best opportunity to lobby the White House for a change in policy. Or, more specifically, enough of a change in policy that would provide the Syrian opposition with the capability needed to combat Assad's biggest military advantage: air power.
If press reports are any indication, Jarba will not utilize that opening. In an interview last Sunday with The Wall Street Journal, Jarba did not mince words about what he hoped to accomplish before leaving town:
"Our mission," Jarba said, "is to convince the U.S. to give us those [anti-aircraft] weapons, or to convince them to allow our friends to provide us with those weapons." Gen. Bashir picked up on the same theme in nearly the exact same language in comments to The Daily Beast: "The main purpose for our visit is to get anti-aircraft weapons to protect innocent civilians inside Syria, and we are hoping the United States is going to help us push aside Assad's air force."
The question, however, has always been whether the administration will accede to those wishes. A spokeswoman for the National Security Council responded to the WSJ and Beast by saying that the Obama administration's policy on the MANPAD issue will continue as is:
We [the White House] have not changed our position. We have made very clear publicly our concerns about this particular system because it has a proliferation risk that does not serve our interests.
The challenge for Jarba and Bashir when they visit the White House is to break through a status-quo that the administration views as a wise play in what has turned out to be an unpredictable, seesaw-like battle between and among proxies and sectarian militias in the heart of the Middle East. If I were a betting man, I would wager on the side of the status-quo. Unfortunately, the prime losers are the Syrian people -- men, women and children -- deliberately targeted by a regime that long ago exhibited its true colors.
It also happens to be a type of caution that does not serve the Obama administration's overall policy well, for without stiff resistance from the armed opposition, it will be impossible to get Bashar al-Assad to engage in the type of substantive political negotiations that is the best mechanism to end the conflict.
UPDATE as of May 14, 2014: The White House has released this readout to the public about National Security Adviser Susan Rice's meeting with SNC President Ahmad al-Jarba. As expected, President Obama "dropped by" the meeting and spoke with Jarba about the need for the political opposition to incorporate as many Syrians of different ethnicities and sectarian affiliations as possible. No mention of additional weapons shipments to the moderate rebels. The statement can be read in full here.
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