“Damascus could very well look like Aleppo in a year’s time.” — J. Landis

21.3.2013 – “I think when you discuss the Syrian crisis now … in terms of violence, there is a balanced playing field. The violence which is being perpetrated by the opposition groups, the rebels, is almost on the same scale. There is an element of strategic parity on the ground. I’d just like to say that Damascus is not going to turn into Aleppo … Damascus is actually relatively safe, internally speaking, there’s conflict on the outskirts but the centre of Damascus is relatively safe.” –Danny Makki, the co-founder of the Syrian Youth in Britain.

The one moment of agreement between the pro-regime and pro-opposition guests was when they both attacked Dr. Landis’ analysis of the sectarian dimension of the conflict. Both sides continue to maintain either that “Syrians are united with Assad” or “Syrians are united against Assad.”

Syria starts to look like fragmented Libya – “The big regional war that everyone is warning about is already here”

“In its bloodied mud, the struggle is on among the Iranians, the Iraqis, the Russians, Hizbollah, the Al Nusra Front, Ahrar Al Sham, Al Qaeda-linked fighters, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party … as well as the Free Syrian Army – with all its brigades and battalions – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan. And now Britain and France are about to join the fray.”

… “Unwilling to enter a third war in the Middle East, after defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has entrusted the Syrian issue and the arming of the opposition to its two allies, France and Britain, just as it did in Libya,” Atwan said.

“That allows Washington to go around talking about a peaceful resolution based on the nebulous Geneva protocol.”

And now for something completely new… Let’s get the drones ready, seeing as how popular they are everywhere:  CIA plans for drone strikes in Syria – LA Times

The CIA has stepped up secret contingency planning to protect the United States and its allies as the turmoil expands in Syria, including collecting intelligence on Islamic extremists for the first time for possible lethal drone strikes, according to current and former U.S. officials.

…or instead of drones just send in the cavalry: Boston Globe: Commander: Contingency plans under way for Syria

The top U.S. military commander in Europe said Tuesday that NATO is conducting contingency planning for possible military involvement in Syria and American forces would be prepared if called upon by the United Nations and member …

Benjamin J. Rhodes, the man in the White House who produces policy on Syria – NYT – by Mark Landler – Worldly at 35, and Shaping Obama’s Voice

As President Obama prepares to visit Israel next week, he is turning, as he often does, to Benjamin J. Rhodes, a 35-year-old deputy national security adviser with a soft voice, strong opinions and a reputation around the White House as the man who channels Mr. Obama on foreign policy.

… Drawing on personal ties and a philosophical kinship with Mr. Obama that go back to the 2008 campaign, Mr. Rhodes helped prod his boss to take a more activist policy toward Egypt and Libya when those countries erupted in 2011.

Now that influence is being put to the test again on the issue of Syria, where the president has so far resisted more than modest American involvement. After two years of civil war that have left 70,000 people dead, Mr. Rhodes, his friends and colleagues said, is deeply frustrated by a policy that is not working, and has become a strong advocate for more aggressive efforts to support the Syrian opposition.

Administration officials note that Mr. Rhodes is not alone in his frustration over Syria, pointing out that Mr. Obama, too, is searching for an American response that ends the humanitarian tragedy, while not enmeshing the United States in a sectarian conflict that many in the White House say bears unsettling similarities to Iraq. Three former officials of the administration — Hillary Rodham Clinton, Robert Gates and David Petraeus — favored arming the opposition, a position Mr. Rhodes did not initially support.

… Two years ago, when protesters thronged Tahrir Square in Cairo, Mr. Rhodes urged Mr. Obama to withdraw three decades of American support for President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. A few months later, Mr. Rhodes was among those agitating for the president to back a NATO military intervention in Libya to head off a slaughter by Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.

… “The person behind the scenes who played the largest role in the opening to Burma and the engagement with Aung San Suu Kyi was Ben Rhodes,” said Kurt M. Campbell, a former assistant secretary of state who led the negotiations with the Myanmar government.

Engineering a shift in Mr. Obama’s Syria policy is probably more difficult than persuading him to reach out to Myanmar, officials said, given the complexities of Syria, the volatility of its neighborhood, the grinding nature of the conflict, and the president’s deep aversion to getting entangled in another military conflict in the Middle East.

Not only is the United States limiting its support of the Free Syrian Army to food rations and medical supplies, the White House has designated one of the main Sunni insurgent groups, al-Nusra front, as a terrorist organization — a policy that alienated many Syrians because of the group’s effectiveness in fighting President Bashar al-Assad.

Colleagues say Mr. Rhodes opposed that decision, which was pushed by intelligence advisers. He also favors equipping the rebels with more robust nonlethal gear and training that would help them in their fight against Mr. Assad’s government, a position shared by Britain and other allies…