Now that the U.S. elections are over, the Obama administration is applying a full-court press for a political solution in Syria. Finally.
But U.S. officials still refuse to openly engage with, or give military aid to, Syrian rebel commanders, who will exercise major influence after the fall of Bashar al-Assad. Instead, the Obama team has been outsourcing the role of aiding military rebels to Saudi Arabia and the tiny Gulf emirate of Qatar, with the Saudis now taking the lead.
Secular Syrian rebel commanders told me during my recent trip to Turkey and Syria that Washington's reliance on the Gulf states has meant that most military aid has gone to Islamists.
Past U.S. efforts to outsource the job of arming Muslim rebels also backfired. Qatar reportedly turned weapons over to Islamic militants during last year's conflict in Libya, and the Saudis gave weapons to the worst militants in the Afghan war against the Soviets. In both cases, our outsourcing of responsibility harmed our own security interests.
So why are we making the same mistake in Syria?
One reason is President Obama's extreme reluctance to get involved in another Mideast war, even if the U.S. role were confined to helping Syrians do the fighting. Instead, U.S. officials have insisted that the Syrian conflict can only be resolved politically, and have provided only limited, nonlethal aid to rebels. They have stuck to that position even as the real battle for Syria is being fought on the ground.
After two years of failed efforts to unify the Syrian political opposition, U.S. and European officials, along with Qatar, have now godfathered a new Syrian transitional leadership body. The United States is set to recognize the Syrian Opposition Council, or SOC, this week.
This is good news. If the SOC holds together, it can provide a channel through which to funnel desperately needed humanitarian aid to liberated areas of Syria. Such aid could in turn strengthen the hand of civilian leadership councils that have emerged in areas freed from Assad's rule.
U.S. officials also hope this new body will exert civilian control over the rebel military forces and ultimately help negotiate the exit of Assad. But the military struggle is fast outpacing efforts to broker a political solution. As rebel fighters gain ground, they may have little time for the Cairo-based SOC or U.S. entreaties.
Activists are bitter about Washington's drawing red lines over the use of chemical weapons, given that 40,000 Syrians have already been killed by planes and artillery shells. Now that rebel fighters smell victory, why should they listen to a U.S. administration that didn't help them in their worst hours? Why not listen to those who provide the guns?
For months, opposition activists such as the members of the Syrian Support Group have urged the United States to vet and help secular opposition commanders, including high-level army defectors. "The SSG is trying to identify moderates and give them support so they can take the lead," said Maher Nana, a Syrian American physician and a cofounder of the group.
Instead, this task was outsourced, mainly to Qatar, which never managed to create a centralized military leadership structure. Money and weapons - some from Gulf states, some from wealthy religious Muslims - flowed directly to local commanders, many of them militant Islamists.
Militia leaders and individual fighters grew militant-style beards to get weapons. Mohammed Ghanem of the Syrian American Council recounted asking a fighter at a checkpoint near Aleppo why he was working with Jabhat al-Nusra, a jihadi group connected with al-Qaeda. The man angrily retorted, "They are the ones with the guns."
U.S. officials repeatedly refused to supply the ground-to-air weapons the rebels desperately needed to repel massive government bombing attacks on civilians, even when groups such as the SSG proposed detailed control systems. The administration feared such weapons might fall into the wrong hands. Now rebel commanders have overrun Syrian army bases and seized ground-to-air weapons on their own, leaving the United States with no say whatsoever on their use.
"People think the United States is not serious," said SSG board member Louay Sakka. "Nonlethal aid will not remove Assad from political power. A political solution will not work without a military part."
Now the Saudis are taking the lead in setting up a central Free Syrian Army command system intended to coordinate the flow of arms and funds to rebel fighters. The system will supposedly exclude groups with al-Qaeda links.
The Saudis are replacing current commanders with men close to them, say opposition activists. Perhaps they will install professional officers; perhaps not. France has indicated it might help the rebels, Britain has hinted likewise, and Turkey will be involved somehow. But the United States is still in the background.
"If you don't want others to have influence, you have to fill the void," says Amr Al Azm, a Syrian activist and history professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio. "You can own the thing or let someone else own it."
When it comes to shaping the military outcome in Syria, which will affect our interests throughout the Mideast region, do we really want the Saudis to own it? Can we really afford to lead from behind?