Revealed: Obama approves "secret" U.S. aid to Syrian rebels

Go figure that, fresh off a Mitt Romney foreign policy tour designed to draw a contrast with O over “strength,” we get a fresh new leak about what The One is doing to kick terrorist and/or dictator ass.

This one’s almost as tasty as the “kill list” leak.

President Barack Obama has signed a secret order authorizing U.S. support for rebels seeking to depose Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his government, U.S. sources familiar with the matter said…

The White House is for now apparently stopping short of giving the rebels lethal weapons, even as some U.S. allies do just that.

But U.S. and European officials have said that there have been noticeable improvements in the coherence and effectiveness of Syrian rebel groups in the past few weeks. That represents a significant change in assessments of the rebels by Western officials, who previously characterized Assad’s opponents as a disorganized, almost chaotic, rabble…

A U.S. government source acknowledged that under provisions of the presidential finding, the United States was collaborating with a secret command center operated by Turkey and its allies…

Indications are that U.S. agencies have not been involved in providing weapons to Assad’s opponents. In order to do so, Obama would have to approve a supplement, known as a “memorandum of notification, to his initial broad intelligence finding.

It’s amazing that, after 11 years of military interventions, there’s still some political advantage for a president to be had in letting the public know that he’s dipping his toe into another swamp in the Middle East. (Or at least, that’s what O’s team is calculating per the leak. Romney’s team, which is trying to out-hawk The One on Iran, certainly believes that a muscular foreign policy will net votes.) Anyway, what this means, I take it, is that we’re giving the rebels help with communications and, especially, surveillance of Assad’s military assets. I doubt they have any trouble getting weapons; they can get them from the Saudis or the Turks or, of course, from us if we launder those weapons through the Saudis or the Turks. What they need is information so that they can coordinate. Remember, the U.S. has stealth drones designed precisely for situations like this. One was probably used in Pakistani airspace before the Bin Laden raid to zero in on his position.

Reuters doesn’t know when O’s order was signed but I’m not sure it matters. I assume the White House’s calculation here is (a) that Assad is strong enough to drag this out for many months more, notwithstanding the tough talk lately from western security officials about his time running out, and (b) with each day that passes with him in power, the post-Assad era looks more and more ominous. The NYT has run more than one story over the past week about jihadi groups building up inside Syria and reorienting fighters there away from national liberation and towards religious duty. The longer the war drags on, the more time and opportunity they’ll have to increase their numbers. (They’ll try to do that in the aftermath too, of course, but in terms of propaganda, taking down Assad is a better rallying cry than taking down the new elected government that replaces him.) WaPo had a hair-raising report a few days ago too about Syria having built up its supply of chemical weapons in the last few years with Iran’s help. The White House figures, I think correctly, that if they continue to cede this battlefield to Assad’s pals in Tehran, the odds of something very desperate and dire happening — and the odds of a stubborn Iranian proxy presence in the aftermath — increase dramatically.

In fact, read this piece at Foreign Policy from a few days ago about Assad possibly carving out a Shiite “Alawistan” inside Syria with Iranian help. There are signs that it’s already begun to happen; Assad may be hunkered down there for all we know, as he hasn’t been seen in two weeks. The U.S. is obviously worried too about maximizing its influence over the next government when it’s finally installed. The more help they can give the rebels now, then in theory the more leverage we’ll have. The first order of business, apparently: Resisting de-Baathification of Syrian security forces by the new regime. A lesson we learned the hard way.