U.S. Secretary of State Kerry speaks at a news conference in Rome

Last week in Rome Secretary of State John Kerry turned a page in U.S. policy on Syria by announcing food and medical assistance to elements of Syria’s armed opposition. While critics of administration policy bemoaned the absence of night vision goggles and body armor from the inventory of non-lethal assistance to be provided, Kerry’s breakthrough will ultimately be seen as a significant success if it is exploited and broadened rapidly and effectively.

President Barack Obama’s objective for Syria remains one of a peaceful, negotiated political transition from Assad family rule to something reflecting modernity and decency. By all accounts Bashar al-Assad regards that goal with utter contempt. He seems to have calculated that Tehran is determined to save him and that Moscow would be content to share with Iran the credit for a proxy war victory.

insight hariri INSIGHT: Kerrys Opening to the Free Syrian ArmyKerry said he wants to change Assad’s calculation. While no fan of American military intervention, he understands that the only variable that matters to Assad is the military situation on the ground in Syria. Obama and his new secretary of state, therefore, have concluded that changing Assad’s calculation will require the United States to do more than write checks to the United Nations for humanitarian relief, and provide training and communications gear for unarmed members of the Syrian opposition.

More importantly, the president seems to have overcome his understandable, if regrettable reluctance to enter this key arena. This is not, after all, the arena of his choosing. Neither the Syrian opposition nor its external supporters opted willingly for armed conflict in Syria: that was the conscious, deliberate choice of a leader who had it in his power to suspend, in the face of peaceful protest, his regime’s business-as-usual program of murder, mayhem, terror, and torture, but elected not to do so. Assad is on a course he chose, and the only thing that might divert him from it is the prospect of military defeat.

“Why should [Assad] compromise if he thinks the Iranians are fully invested in helping him kill enough Syrians to stay in power while the West hangs back out of fear that things might become too militarized?” – Frederic C. Hof, Atlantic Council Hariri Center

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Syria's President Bashar al-Assad heads a cabinet meeting in Damascus February 12, 2013. (Reuters/SANA-Handout)

The administration has dropped its formulation that the United States did not wish to work with the armed opposition out of fear of “further militarizing” the situation in Syria. It is a situation long-since militarized to the maximum extent by a man who thought his father’s terror-based system could still induce submission. Now he thinks he can get by with a little help from his Iranian, Lebanese, and Russian friends. He alone has the power to suspend the madness, empty the prisons, and enable transition negotiations. Yet why should he compromise if he thinks the Iranians are fully invested in helping him kill enough Syrians to stay in power while the West hangs back out of fear that things might become too militarized?  Kerry’s latest announcement means that sense of assurance is no longer justified. With the help of the United Kingdom and France, the administration can defeat defeatism in the European Union as well.

The challenge facing the United States and its allies is much more than one of simply arming the opposition. Yes, providing arms may prove to be an essential element in building relationships that should aim to bind the disparate elements of the Free Syrian Army to the Supreme Military Council, and the Supreme Military Council to the Syrian Opposition Coalition. Yes, there will be enormous operational challenges related to who gets what and how, and no one can guarantee that MREs, antibiotics or even anti-tank systems will never go astray. Yet the policy question is straightforward: will the United States try to focus its aid, and that of its partners, on the goal of producing a coherent opposition – ideally in the form of an alternate government – capable of defeating the regime militarily and governing the country in a decent, non-sectarian manner?  Or will the Obama-Kerry breakthrough be stopped in its tracks by administration lawyers and others who doubt the utility and feasibility of a policy that actually transcends strategic messaging?

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Free Syrian Army fighters eat atop an armored personnel carrier they captured from government forces, Aleppo, March 4, 2013. (Reuters)

Assad’s weekend interview tantrum against the United Kingdom should be seen by the West as a thrown gauntlet to be picked up. Until now a major internal messaging component of the regime’s survival strategy has involved the biggest of lies: the suggestion that the regime has kept open important channels of communication to the West, channels that would ultimately enable Assad to resurrect himself in the eyes of Washington, London, and other important capitals. The message is important to Syrian minorities, none of whom want to contemplate a future involving total dependency on Iran, and an Assad-led Syria looking increasingly like a Levantine version of North Korea. With his petulant performance, Assad uncharacteristically revealed an important truth: he has no friends or contacts in any country that can offer Syrians a way out of misery or a pathway to prosperity. This is a theme U.S. leaders would do well to repeat. Indeed, when Assad finally decides to desert those who have done his dirty work, he will find no enthusiastic host anywhere. Even the Russians do not want him.

Time is of the essence in bringing the Assad regime to an end. The administration appears now to be acting in accordance with that basic truth. It appears that the Obama-Kerry team has turned an important corner. Yet it will have to move with great dispatch to make up for lost time.

This post was originally published by the Atlantic Council’s Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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 INSIGHT: Kerrys Opening to the Free Syrian Army

Frederic C. Hof

Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council and the former Special Advisor for Transition in Syria at the US Department of State.