Josh Rogin writes for The Cable blog of Foreign Policy:
The Obama administration very publicly signaled a shift in its approach to dealing with the Syria crisis after negotiations broke down at the United Nations in mid-July.
But the actual details of that shift are still being debated internally and the administration's rhetoric has gotten out ahead of its policy, according to officials, experts, and lawmakers.
Those details are being discussed among a select group of top officials in a closed process managed by National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, multiple sources told The Cable. Within that group, some officials are arguing for more direct aid to the internal Syrian opposition, including the Free Syrian Army, that would help them better fight the Syrian military.
Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford is pushing for such stepped-up measures and his team at the State Department is maintaining close contact with internal opposition groups, multiple administration sources said, including in meetings with opposition leaders this week in Cairo.
Other top officials at State, including Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Senior Advisor Fred Hof, are focusing more on developing diplomatic strategies with the external opposition and regional players such as Turkey.
At the Pentagon, the Syria and Israel teams have been working overtime to plan against contingencies and tackle the challenge of tracking Assad's chemical weapons and potentially responding to an instance of their use. The Washington Examiner reported July 21 that the Pentagon has set up a "Crisis Asset Team" to prepare for the regime's collapse and officials toldThe Cable that the Joint Chiefs of Staff is preparing worst-case scenario planning.
All this activity is taking place within guidelines handed down from the White House regarding the limits of what U.S. agencies can do inside Syria.
Two administration sources confirmed that the president has issued a finding allowing non-lethal assistance to non-violent groups inside Syria, which opens the door to more communications and intelligence help for the local councils, but closes the door on the idea of providing the Free Syrian Army with direct arms, military training, or other deadly assistance. It also closes the door on the idea of providing safe havens inside Syria using U.S. assets.