As the Arab League was meeting in Baghdad (see part I), the "Friends of Syria" conference in Istanbul was being prepared for by the Gulf monarchs and western leaders.
This was the second meeting of the group, following up on a February meeting held in the Tunisian capitol of Tunis. The Istanbul conference was attended by representatives from over 70 countries, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe. Not in attendance, however, were leaders from Russia, China, and Iran, giving the conference a decidedly NATO-dominated tone.
The only major development to come out of the conference was an agreement that Saudi Arabia and Qatar would establish a $100 million slush fund to "pay the salaries" of anti-government fighters in Syria. Despite the White House's reticence on arming the opposition, the U.S. made no move to quell this initiative, undertaken by two close American allies. In fact, considering that Secretary Clinton visited Saudi Arabia only days prior to the conference, their may have been a tacit U.S. endorsement of the plan.
In Washington, the Obama administration's public Syria policy has been to aid the opposition with communications equipment and intelligence, including the use of drones in Syrian airspace, while leaving the dirtier task of providing armaments to its allies in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. This did not change at the Istanbul conference, with Mrs. Clinton upping the American assistance to $25 million, which now included satellite intelligence and night vision goggles. While the State Department euphemistically characterized this aid as helping fighters "evade attacks from government forces," Atlantic editor Robert Wright correctly surmises that the U.S. aid will in fact be used for offensive purposes--"helping Syrians kill other Syrians"--as he put it.
Part of the U.S.'s hesitance to commit full-throttle to the anti-government forces is a widespread apprehension of who exactly is participating in protests and battles with Assad's forces, as well as the concern that the opposition power structure of the SNC is entirely exile based and has no popular mandate within Syria. As a CNN report put it, "While not abandoning the SNC entirely, senior officials say the Obama administration in recent months has begun to cast a much wider net for Syrians who can run Syria the day after al-Assad falls. The United States could no longer put all of its eggs in the SNC's basket." The shadow looming over the SNC, is of course, the Iraqi National Congress, the exile group who heavily lobbied for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but then fell apart and had no tangible effect on post-war governance, leaving the U.S. without an established partner to help rule Baghdad. The worry is that the SNC is of a similar stripe, and thus the U.S. would be alone in trying to hold power in a post-Assad Damascus.
The other factor complicating Washington's designs is the fact that the Assad government has been militarily successful in putting down rebellious hotspots like the southern city of Homs. Without a secure center from which to coordinate attacks, like the Libyan anti-government fighters had in Benghazi, Syria's opposition has had little cumulative success in confronting the government security services, which have been built up by the Assad family for nearly half a century. Couple this with a Syrian populous that desires stability over civil war, and thus are more than happy to back Assad if it seems he will be victorious over the protesters, and it seems that the "inevitability" of the fall of the Syrian regime is looking like a remote prospect. Mike Rogers, the Republican Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee (thus privy to classified info on the subject), said as much earlier this week, when he told CNN's Candice Crowley that "we don't see Assad's inner circle crumbling," and in fact "the Syrian leadership believes it is winning against the armed protesters." Rogers also commented that he believes the U.S. should not arm the anti-government fighters, because "we just don't know who they are."
For the Obama Administration, the overall scheme is one of saving face. It has been nearly eight months since President Obama announced in August of last year that Assad had to step down, and by all accounts this is not close to happening. The ongoing question is what pressure the White house will exert to make the President's dictate a reality, and how quickly will they exert this pressure. Counteracting this is the political unpalatability of the U.S. involving itself in yet another Middle East conflict, on the eve of a general election no less. One deadline fast approaching is the NATO Summit, to be held in Chicago in May. Will Obama continue waffling on Syria for another month, bringing his failed policy to his political home base?
There is also the ongoing geopolitical divide, touched on in part I, between the Gulf Monarchies and Iran. To what degree is the U.S. willing to back the GCC states, and to what degree will this influence regional questions like that in Syria? So far the U.S. has not adopted the Gulf position on Syria, but has not restrained their position either.