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.
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.
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.
"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.
The tide of war has slowly turned in favor of rebel fighters since it began in early 2011, Sakka says. Fighting commenced when military forces loyal to the government started attacking peaceful demonstrators following protests in March 2011. Opposition fighters then began firing back with whatever weapons they could muster, mostly rocket-propelled grenades and basic rifles purchased from Libya, Iraq, Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.
Western intelligence services monitor these weapons.
"It's well known that the Syrian rebels are acquiring weapons from multiple sources, which includes friends in the region and the black market," a U.S. official tells U.S. News. "Western countries concerned about the course of the conflict would naturally be working to keep tabs on these weapons flows."
The supplies the United States has issued to the rebel fighters is limited to non-lethal equipment, such as cameras, which account for the many YouTube videos posted online, and communications equipment to thwart the regime's attempts to shut down activists' efforts to coordinate, another U.S. official tells U.S. News.
"Ultimately this is a political problem," the official says. "Hence our focus on a political transition and in supporting the unarmed opposition."
The fighting grew bloodier as the Assad regime ordered soldiers to fire on protesters last year. Unable to continue these attacks on their countrymen, roughly 100,000 troops have deserted, including 15,000 to 20,000 who have defected to opposition groups, such as the Free Syrian Army. Part of this includes thousands conscripted into service who have not returned to their assigned posts.
The Syrian army was comprised of roughly 80 percent civilians serving obligatory terms, and 20 percent full-time soldiers, Sakka says. Overall force numbers have dropped, and the percentage has shifted to 85 percent civilians.
Syrian security forces number roughly 300,000.
Rebel fighters began to take more ground, and the military resources that come with them. This included more advanced machine guns, 8mm and 120mm artillery, and roughly 30 surface-to-air missiles from Libya and Lebanon employing decades-old technology.
With this ordnance, opposition fighters began shooting down more of the military jets responsible for brutal air strikes. What started as one downed jet per month has now evolved to up to four per day, Sakka says.
Assad has lost so many warplanes, he has said he will switch to more frequent surface-to-surface missiles, SSG says.
Roughly 80 percent of the opposition fighters have endorsed the Free Syrian Army chain of command, which remains fragile, Sakka says.
SSG is based in the United States and received a license from the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, which enforces U.S. trade sanctions. It created a "Proclamation of Principles" for the Free Syrian Army, which it asks commanders of participating FSA military councils to sign.
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Paul D. Shinkman is a national security reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at email@example.com.