Time Could Be Up for United States in Syria

United States may have to throw a Hail Mary to win over Syrians.

In this Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012 photo, smoke rises from buildings due to heavy fighting between Free Syrian Army fighters and government forces in Aleppo, Syria.

Smoke rises from buildings due to heavy fighting between Free Syrian Army fighters and government forces on Saturday in Aleppo, Syria.

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The sun is setting on America's opportunity to get involved in Syria, according to a U.S.-endorsed activist group, where anger over President Obama's perceived inaction now matches criticism of his predecessor as a warmonger.

The United States does not have a clearly defined policy toward Syria, says Louay Sakka, a spokesman for the Syrian Support Group, which raises funds for the Free Syrian Army under a license from the U.S. Treasury Department. Even the $200 million the Obama administration touts it has given to the country in humanitarian aid has gone unnoticed, he says.

[PHOTOS: Refugee Crisis Escalating in Syria]

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is all but ousted, having lost political power as well as his control over a large majority of the country, Sakka says. If the United States doesn't act soon, he says, may be too late to win over Syrians' "minds and hearts" and exert any influence on a volatile post-dictatorship nation.

"This is [America's] last chance to catch up, otherwise you'll have a failed state and no support on the ground," Sakka says. "If [the United States] doesn't do this, why will people listen? Syrians will think, 'When we needed them, they didn't help us.'"

"The U.S. has to have a vision, a plan toward Syria," he says. "Time is running out, and the absence of such vision has jeopardized [the] U.S. position as [a] world leader."

A U.S. official familiar with Syrian policy tells U.S. News that the U.S. commitment is unparalleled.

"As far as the opposition is concerned, I don't see any other country that has been more involved than the United States," says the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

"The U.S. has supported [the opposition] in their development of a transition plan and political mission statement in Cairo and their efforts in Doha to form the Syrian Opposition Coalition," the official says of the two conferences this fall. "The Syrian Opposition Coalition is inclusive and broadly representative. A large portion of its membership is made up of folks from within Syria or folks who have recently departed."

Secretary Hillary Clinton on Nov. 29 drew on mistakes the U.S. made in Iraq as a cautionary tale for how to proceed in Syria.

[READ: Rebels Clash With Troops Near Syrian Capital]

Assad has lost almost all contact by ground outside of Damascus, where troops have holed up surrounding the inner center of the city, according to the latest SSG intelligence. His only access to the rest of the country is by air or missile attack. Pockets of forces loyal to him are cut off from one another and unable to distribute supplies.

President Barack Obama used some of his harshest language yet toward the Assad regime Monday afternoon, while still falling short of defining a clear policy for the region. His remarks, given at the National Defense University, followed reports that the Syrian government is mobilizing chemical weapons.

"We will continue to support the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people," he said. This support includes humanitarian aid.

[WH: Syrian Chemical Weapon Use Would Cross 'Red Line']

"I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command: The world is watching," Obama said. "Use of chemical weapons would be totally unacceptable. If you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable."

It is unclear to the Syrian people that the United States has issued even a fraction of its humanitarian aid, according to SSG analysis, because much of it is sent to Turkey for relief efforts, to help stabilize neighboring Jordan, or as medical resources for the Syrian Red Crescent.

The Syrians people do not see it as aid from America, which leads to a negative view of the United States, Sakka says.

Any support from the United States—as Syrians perceive it now—to post-Assad political groups would only isolate the groups, he says, making them incapable of preserving law and order.

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