Sometimes, what President Obama doesn’t say can be as important as what he does.
In all of the commander-in-chief’s public comments on Syria–and the need for military intervention there–Obama made almost no mention of the disparate rebel groups who would surely benefit from U.S. action as they try to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
For more than two years, the country has been ripped apart by a bloody civil war and during that time, the United States government has repeatedly tried and failed to create a coalition out of the volatile rebel groups fighting Assad. Rebel factions in Syria run the gamut from secular nationalists to Islamist extremists and U.S. intelligence has warned some may be affiliated with al Qaeda.
Before U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford was pulled out of Damascus in October 2011 over security concerns, he spent months trying to create a group the United States could work with in the event of Assad’s departure from power. But to this day, there is still little understanding of who the opposition is and how a leadership vacuum would be filled.
It’s a similar conundrum to what the U.S. faced in Egypt, Iraq and Libya in the last decade–all ruled by secular authoritarians whose departures from power were followed by the rise of religious rebels and organizations hungry to impose some sort of Islamic law.
In Syria, the religious dynamic is particularly acute as Assad–a secular Alawite, part of the Shiite branch of Islam–is under attack mostly from religious Sunni groups with varied interests and outside support. It is unknown which groups, if any, may be affiliated politically with elements in Saudi Arabia or the Gulf states.
If the U.S. administration knows more about the rebels, it isn’t sharing much with the public.
Obama gave two crucial sets of remarks in the last week on Syria–one noting U.S. certainty that Assad used chemical weapons against his own people in a deadly attack on Aug. 21. The other, on Saturday, announced he would seek Congressional approval for a military attack he described as limited in scope and duration.
Only in Saturday’s remarks was there a brief nod from the president to “our commitment to the opposition,” but no description of who they are.
Secretary of State John Kerry mentioned that the Aug. 21 attack was inflicted on opposition-controlled neighborhoods. His remarks also included promises that the U.S would continue to pressure the Assad regime while seeking a long-term diplomatic solution to the crisis.
Presumably, such negotiations would eventually include representatives from the same groups Ambassador Ford had struggled to unite. While many are operating under the umbrella group of the Free Syrian Army, they don’t necessarily agree on what kind of government should emerge after Assad. U.S. intelligence says there could be as many as 1,200 groups, with some even having links to al Qaeda. It is not hard to imagine many of these groups turning on each other in the scramble for power that would surely follow an ouster of Assad.
That has not been lost on some lawmakers who will be tasked with voting later this month on whether to use force in retaliation for the chemical attack.
After a classified briefing on Saturday, Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri said, “The biggest single concern among the members may very well have been a very broad request for authority with supposedly a very narrow intent to do anything and I think that has to be narrowed down in the next week.”
Meanwhile, Syrian opposition leaders are saying Obama’s decision to wait on Congress will merely strengthen Assad.
“Assad will retaliate against the people, with more force than now,” Abu Sham, a spokesman for the Revolutionary Command Council, an umbrella activist organization, told NBC News over the weekend.
Another rebel spokesman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, was more menacing, saying rebel groups may be more inclined to turn to radicals instead. “Syrians were starting to put their faith in American help, but it hasn’t come,” he said. “That encourages Syrians to believe that radicals like al Qaeda are the only ones seriously willing to make sacrifices help them.”
CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article referred to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a member of the Sunni branch of Islam. He is a secular Alawite, part of the Shiite branch. We regret this error.