U.S. discreetly plans for post-Assad Syria
Published: August 4, 2012 06:28PM
Updated: August 4, 2012 06:28PM

Washington • Even with fighting raging in Syria and President Bashar Assad digging in, the State Department and Pentagon are quietly sharpening plans to cope with a flood of refugees, help maintain basic health and municipal services, restart a shattered economy and avoid a security vacuum in the wake of Assad’s fall, administration officials say.

Mindful of U.S. mistakes following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, both agencies have created a number of cells to draft plans for what many officials expect to be a chaotic, violent aftermath that could spread instability over Syria’s borders, even though no official could predict whether Assad’s demise was weeks or months away.

The State Department is considering positioning additional food and medical supplies in the region and is studying how to dismantle the raft of U.S. and European sanctions against Syria quickly to allow investment to flow in and business to resume, avoiding further deterioration of life for ordinary people.

It is also pressing the opposition in Syria to avoid harsh retaliation against the army, the police and the municipal agencies of Assad’s government that could cause a security vacuum and a collapse of services. Looting and chaos after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003 planted the seeds of a lasting insurgency.

“We don’t want them to dissolve all the institutions in place,” an administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss planning that is largely being conducted out of public view.

Even though the White House has all but ruled out military intervention, the Pentagon is drafting contingency plans for operations with NATO or regional allies to manage a large flow of refugees over Syria’s borders and safeguard the country’s arsenal of chemical weapons.

The administration’s efforts have been driven by a bleak prognosis shared by most officials: Assad’s fall would be likely to set off a grave, potentially violent and unpredictable implosion in a country strained by even more tribal, ethnic and sectarian divisions than Iraq, possibly in the midst of a presidential election campaign at home.

“The main question we’re looking at is how it all plays out after the Assad regime collapses,” one U.S. official said. “Chapter 1 is he’s gone. Chapter 2 is the post-Assad transition, and initial efforts at stabilization. Chapter 3 is completely unknown, and therefore more than a little scary.”

The planning is particularly delicate because the Obama administration does not want to create the appearance of U.S. interference in a transitional, post-Assad government, even though the United States would inevitably be entangled in any turmoil that resulted.

Rafif Jouejati, an American of Syrian ancestry who is a spokeswoman for a network of activists in Syria, said those committed to Assad’s removal had no interest in “a foreign transition plan,” however well intentioned.

“What we don’t want to do is descend into the total chaos that Iraq did,” said Jouejati, who is participating in a similar planning effort among Syrian activists coordinated through the United States Institute of Peace, an independent but congressionally financed organization in Washington. Even so, she added, “I don’t think we want the United States to impose lessons learned here.”

The State Department and Pentagon planning efforts became more systematic last month after hopes for an internationally brokered resolution faltered in the face of Russian and Chinese opposition in the U.N. Security Council. The planning is being closely coordinated with regional allies like Turkey, Jordan and Israel, and it coincides with an expansion of overt and covert U.S. and foreign assistance to Syria’s increasingly potent rebel fighters.

While the administration has ruled out arming the rebels directly, the administration has authorized $25 million in direct assistance for medical supplies and communication equipment to help the fighters and civilian opponents of Assad coordinate their activities and, crucially, disseminate reports about the fighting to the rest of the world.

Other countries, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are providing weapons, assisted by a small number of officers from the Central Intelligence Agency who are vetting the fighters receiving them and working with State Department officials trying to unify the fighters with political leaders inside and outside the country. Last month, the Treasury Department granted a waiver to let a new American organization, the Syrian Support Group, raise money for the rebels despite the sanctions that prohibit most financial transactions in Syria.

On Thursday, President Barack Obama also announced a $12 million increase in humanitarian aid, bringing the total to $76 million, largely distributed through international organizations like the World Food Program.

The State Department effort is being coordinated by Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns, who worked in the Near Eastern Affairs Bureau during the planning for the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, when the department clashed with the Pentagon over what to do after Saddam’s fall. The department has created a number of separate cells devoted to aspects of a post-Assad Syria, including humanitarian issues, economic reconstruction, security, the stockpiles of chemical weapons and a political transition.

The last is led by the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert S. Ford, who closed the embassy in Damascus in February amid deteriorating security there and is now based in Washington. Ford met in Cairo last week with more than 250 Syrians to shape plans for the inchoate opposition groups to form a transitional government. That meeting followed a larger gathering of Assad’s opponents last month, organized by the Arab League.

The Pentagon, along with Central Command, has established a similar group of planning cells, known as “crisis action teams,” focused on contingencies that could involve the American military. Senior officials declined to give the number and emphasized that such cells are created whenever potential crises emerge.

The range of plans being drafted, however, underscored the gravity of the risks. Atop the list is protecting Syria’s chemical weapons, which its leaders acknowledged possessing when vowing last month to use them only in the event of a foreign invasion. “That would be a purely military-type mission, and so we have to think about contingency planning for safeguarding these stockpiles,” one official said.

The Pentagon has also offered Jordan and Turkey assistance in defending their borders and managing the influx of refugees, as well as ensuring the delivery of humanitarian supplies. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta discussed these issues with King Abdullah II of Jordan in Amman on Thursday, said the Pentagon’s press secretary, George Little, who declined to discuss specific contingency planning.

Some experts and some lawmakers on Capitol Hill have criticized the administration for not devoting more effort and money to assist Assad’s opponents, including the rebel fighters and emerging political leaders inside and outside the country.

“This is certainly a useful exercise,” James Dobbins, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND Corp., told the Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations on Wednesday, referring to the State Department’s planning. “Yet planning divorced from resources and power, as these efforts necessarily are, will have only limited impact on actual events.”