By Elise Labott
U.S. officials said they weren't surprised Thursday when Kofi Annan stepped down as U.N. envoy to Syria.
It's a pity that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent months of diplomatic effort, traveling from capital to capital pushing the "Annan plan" as a viable political transition strategy, all the while the administration knew it had little chance of succeeding.
So with Annan's resignation and three failed attempts at a Security Council resolution on Syria, is diplomacy dead?
At the State Department, the answer is "no."
At Thursday's press briefing, Acting Deputy Spokesman Patrick Ventrell said while the United States would have preferred to work through the U.N. Security Council, Washington was going along with it's four-pronged strategy of a) strengthening sanctions to squeeze the regime of President Bashar al-Assad; b) helping the opposition with non-lethal aid to organize and work toward a political transition; c) providing humanitarian assistance; and, d) ensuring accountability and justice for members of the al-Assad regime with blood on their hands.
Ventrell was promptly reminded by reporters that there is precious little in this U.S. strategy the administration can point to that will actually end the violence because a) sanctions take a long time to work; b) the non-lethal U.S. assistance to date of $25 million is a paltry sum compared to both the U.S. foreign affairs budget and the need on the ground; and, c) humanitarian aid is a Band-Aid that might treat the symptoms, but not the underlying cause of the crisis.
The Obama administration sees the glass half full. The opposition continues to gain strength and confidence, Ventrell pointed out, while the al-Assad regime continues to run out of money and is losing control.
"Our analysis is that the regime's capabilities are being weakened, that the Syrian army's soldiers are becoming demoralized, and that the opposition is gaining ground," Ventrell said. "So in effect, our strategy is having an impact."
The administration is coming under increasing pressure to arm the opposition. Yet officials from Secretary Clinton on down say the United States doesn't want to "further militarize the conflict."
"We are going to get there," one official said about al-Assad's ouster. "We want to get there in a way that's a softer landing. We don't want the institutions to just melt away."
In some ways, it explains the U.S. rationale for not wanting to further "militarize" the conflict in Syria.
But the truth is, the U.S. does want to further militarize the conflict. It just doesn't want to be the one to do it.
Washington is perfectly content to let its allies such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia arm the rebels. The U.S. approach, in essence, is to let civil war play out, hope the rebels win and plan for the day al-Assad is gone.
Then, in a page from the "Wizard of Oz," the administration can join the Syrian rebels, along with al-Assad's defeated army, in a rendition of "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead."
Of course, the problem with this approach is that Washington will not be in the chorus. The less involvement the United States has in helping the opposition overtake the regime, the less influence Washington will have if and when al-Assad does fall.
That doesn't exactly bode well for the "soft landing" the U.S. is hoping for.