Obama’s ‘New’ Syria Policy Isn’t Adding Up

His top advisers push for new military options, but they’re unlikely to be enough.

US President Barack Obama listens to President Michel Sleiman of Lebanon speaking to the media before a bilateral meeting on the sideline of the 68th United Nations General Assembly at the UN in New York on September 24, 2013. Obama on demanded that the world take action on Syria, saying that the regime must face consequences after the use of chemical weapons. Speaking before the UN General Assembly, Obama defended his threat of force against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime and denounced critics who accuse the United States of inconsistency. 
National Journal
Michael Hirsh
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Michael Hirsh
Feb. 27, 2014, 11:25 p.m.

Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry and oth­er seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials have be­gun ar­guing for Pres­id­ent Obama to con­sider fur­ther mil­it­ary op­tions in Syr­ia, in­clud­ing send­ing U.S. mil­it­ary per­son­nel in­to the re­gion to train rebel forces, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cials in­volved in the de­bate.

While Obama re­mains re­luct­ant to in­ter­vene in the civil war, his ad­visers’ shift­ing po­s­i­tion re­flects the palp­able in­crease in pres­sure felt by the White House after the break­down in peace talks in Geneva. It also sig­nals a grow­ing sense among seni­or of­fi­cials that the con­flict is no longer simply a hu­man­it­ari­an prob­lem but a re­gion­al crisis that could tar­nish the pres­id­ent’s leg­acy and U.S. prestige.

Kerry, De­fense Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel, and oth­er prin­cipals sub­mit­ted lists of op­tions to Obama last week, but those ap­peared to pre­clude any course that would in­volve “boots on the ground.”

“Among the pro­pos­als for con­sid­er­a­tion was overt mil­it­ary train­ing of rebels — not in­volve­ment in any way,” says a seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial. If ad­op­ted, such train­ing pro­grams would rep­res­ent a step up from the cov­ert train­ing already be­ing done by the CIA in Jordan.

Non­ethe­less, obstacles abound, not least of which is Obama’s con­tin­ued in­sist­ence that no U.S. per­son­nel be in­volved on the ground.

Adding to the hurdles is fresh in­fight­ing with­in the West­ern-backed Free Syr­i­an Army. The re­bel­lion’s planned “spring of­fens­ive” was thrown in­to chaos after com­mand­ers cri­ti­cized a de­cision by the Su­preme Mil­it­ary Coun­cil co­ordin­at­ing body to fire the army’s al­legedly in­ef­fec­tu­al lead­er.

These fis­sures have strengthened Obama’s con­vic­tion that the United States can do little to af­fect the even­tu­al out­come and that changes to policy should be in­cre­ment­al and re­main cau­tious, so as to keep Amer­ica from get­ting dragged in­to the war, ac­cord­ing to seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials. As a res­ult, it is un­likely that the op­tions that Obama is now con­sid­er­ing will sub­stan­tially al­ter the situ­ation on the ground.

“The rebel chaos and frag­ment­a­tion has reached such a point that no strategist worth his salt, I think, be­lieves the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion can find glory in try­ing to arm up these guys,” says Joshua Land­is, a Syr­ia ex­pert at the Uni­versity of Ok­lahoma.

Even so, the ad­min­is­tra­tion wants to be more in­volved, if only to try to guide and re­strain the ef­forts of Saudi Ar­a­bia, Qatar, and oth­er coun­tries that have pressed Obama to sup­ply the rebels with heav­ier weapons, in­clud­ing shoulder-fired sur­face-to-air mis­siles. That could have an ef­fect sim­il­ar to what U.S. aid did in Afgh­anistan a gen­er­a­tion ago against the So­viet air force by sup­ply­ing Stinger mis­siles to the mu­ja­hadeen.

Among those coun­tries, ser­i­ous dis­cus­sions are now fo­cused on sup­ply­ing arms that would al­low the Syr­i­an rebels to neut­ral­ize As­sad’s air force — as long as the weapons are se­cured with teams of ad­visers so that mil­it­ants from the power­ful al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaida af­fil­i­ate, an­oth­er group call­ing it­self the Is­lam­ic State of Ir­aq and Syr­ia (IS­IS), and oth­er ex­trem­ists don’t get hold of them. A con­clave of in­tel­li­gence chiefs from those and oth­er coun­tries dis­cussed these op­tions at a meet­ing in Wash­ing­ton earli­er this month.

Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials say they still op­pose that policy, first be­cause the weapons might ul­ti­mately land in the hands of Is­lam­ist groups but second be­cause they would re­quire train­ing and mon­it­or­ing by U.S. per­son­nel on the ground.

Iron­ic­ally, ac­cord­ing to one of­fi­cial in­volved in the dis­cus­sions, the new de­bate over these re­l­at­ively mea­ger mil­it­ary op­tions some­times pits White House of­fi­cials who are more pro-in­ter­ven­tion against Pentagon of­fi­cials who are be­ing more cau­tious. That marks an ap­par­ent turn­around from a year ago, when then-De­fense Sec­ret­ary Le­on Pan­etta and Joint Chiefs Chair­man Mar­tin De­mp­sey both test­i­fied to Con­gress that they had sup­por­ted sup­ply­ing arms to the rebels while the White House stood firmly against that policy, fear­ing that any in­volve­ment mil­it­ar­ily would be a polit­ic­al loser for the pres­id­ent with polls show­ing that Amer­ic­ans over­whelm­ing op­posed in­ter­ven­tion.

Kerry, in par­tic­u­lar, has grown frus­trated over the lack of U.S. ac­tion. He has sug­ges­ted that the Geneva peace talks can suc­ceed only if set­backs on the ground force Dam­as­cus back in­to ne­go­ti­ations, and that can hap­pen only if the na­tions sup­port­ing the rebels ad­equately counter the as­sist­ance that Syr­i­an dic­tat­or Bashar al-As­sad is get­ting from Rus­sia and Ir­an. “It is very clear that Bashar al-As­sad is con­tinu­ing to try to win this in the bat­tle­field rather than to come to the ne­go­ti­at­ing table in good faith,” Kerry said.

A seni­or West­ern dip­lo­mat said that “there is a big­ger and big­ger aware­ness, es­pe­cially around Sec­ret­ary Kerry, that in fact we are fa­cing a glob­al fail­ure on Syr­ia.”

Light weapons are now be­ing sup­plied to the rebels, but a year ago a CIA as­sess­ment con­cluded that those would not be enough to tip the bal­ance of the con­flict. U.S. and Is­raeli of­fi­cials fear de­liv­er­ing any­thing lar­ger or more leth­al, such as anti-tank or sur­face-to-air mis­siles that be used against U.S., Is­raeli or com­mer­cial tar­gets.

Obama him­self has changed the tone of his pub­lic com­ments about Syr­ia, ap­pear­ing to open the door slightly more to a mil­it­ary op­tion. “Right now we don’t think that there is a mil­it­ary solu­tion, per se, to the prob­lem,” Obama said two weeks ago at a joint press con­fer­ence with French Pres­id­ent Fran­cois Hol­lande. “But the situ­ation is flu­id, and we are con­tinu­ing to ex­plore every pos­sible av­en­ue to solve this prob­lem.”

Still, As­sad’s stay­ing power and the lack of a cred­ible unity among his op­pos­i­tion sug­gest little will change in Syr­ia without a lar­ger-scale com­mit­ment than Obama is ready to make.

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