The president’s Syria policy consists of high-minded pronouncements and inaction. Cynics would say that President Obama is simply avoiding conflict (or any controversy, for that matter) to get him through the November election with the claim that he’s a foreign policy wizard who’s been able to “end” wars. (The notion is nonsense; We can end our involvement, but the conflicts will go on without us.)
The Post reports that according to three U.S. intelligence sources : “A year into the uprising in Syria, senior U.S. intelligence officials described the nation’s president, Bashar al-Assad, on Friday as firmly in control and increasingly willing to unleash one of the region’s most potent militaries on badly overmatched opposition groups. The officials also said Assad’s inner circle is ‘remaining steadfast,’ with little indication that senior figures in the regime are inclined to peel off, despite efforts by the Obama administration and its allies to use sanctions and other measures to create a wave of defections that would undermine Assad.” If this is true, Obama’s Syria policy has been a colossal failure, and Assad’s patrons in Tehran have scored a huge victory.
In a similar account the Associated Press makes clear that these intelligence officers were dispatched to talk to number of media outlets. The message: “Intelligence analysts have concluded that the disorganized Syrian opposition is providing little challenge to Assad, with political leaders of the Syrian National Council proving more apt at picking ego-driven fights among themselves than working as a team. The Syrian Free Army is made up of a ragtag ‘Star Wars’ bar of disparate groups, lightly armed with rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and homemade improvised explosive devices, the officials said.”
Former deputy national security advisor Elliott Abrams smells a rat in the gloom and doom press outreach: “The Obama administration is politicizing intelligence on Syria. What does ‘politicizing intelligence’ mean? Using intel, or more often partial intel, to produce an effect in line with White House policies rather than giving a full picture of a particular situation.” He sees that “the goal of the briefing seems clear: to justify doing nothing. If Syria’s forces are huge and ‘highly professional,’ the chances that our support for the opposition will be fruitful are small.” His take is that the strength of the Syrian army and the disarray among opposition groups are being exaggerated. (“When the three senior intel officers mentioned the reserves, did they tell reporters what awful shape they are in? Did they discuss how much of the Syrian Army is a poorly trained force of Sunni conscripts on which the regime cannot rely? How could they possibly have described this Syrian army as a ‘highly professional force of 330,000’?”)
So let’s assume that things are not too bleak and that it still may be possible to accomplish our goal — the ouster of Assad and a geopolitical setback for the Iranian mullahs — an let’s consider the alternatives to Obama’s do-nothing non-strategy.
In a must-read piece in the New York Times, Jonathan Tepperman writes: “Syria’s rebels are in retreat, President Bashar al-Assad’s loyalist forces are laying waste to their former strongholds, and the death toll is mounting: the latest United Nations reports put it around 7,500. As the body count has increased, so, too, have calls for outside intervention. It’s time for the West to step in — but only after honestly debating what it will take to stop the carnage.” But he cautions against half-measures:
The problem is that merely arming the rebels is unlikely to end the conflict, and could well fuel the fire. . . Creating safe havens for fleeing civilians might sound like a better idea, since these would be more clearly defensive. But in practice they could prove just as problematic. Without major outside support, such sanctuaries would risk being overrun by hostile forces, as they were in Bosnia in 1995. . . .
The Obama administration does not want to hear any of this. It just got out of Iraq and is trying to get out of Afghanistan and stay out of Iran; it has little stomach for yet another war in yet another Muslim country. But let’s not pretend that half-measures are preferable. Choosing policies just because they are cheap, gratifying and politically palatable is rarely a good idea, especially when they could well make matters worse. Those of us unwilling to tolerate more slaughter in Syria must confront the true nature of the military choices facing us.
He is talking about a “Libya-style coalition air campaign [that] shouldn’t require many boots on the ground. Western air power could make short work of Mr. Assad’s army: Though often described as formidable, the Syrian military is having trouble completely suppressing the rebels and could never withstand a sustained outside onslaught.”
Indeed, that isn’t what Obama wants to hear. At all. But Tepperman’s views are shared by an increasing number of conservative journalists, analysts and policymakers.
Most recently, Lee Smith writes: “Here’s to John McCain, leading from the front. . . . The Arizona senator cut through all the White House double talk on the Syrian uprising and demanded a more active U.S. policy, including provision of arms to the Free Syrian Army as well as airpower to slow the assaults of Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime.” Smith observes:
The White House believes against all evidence that a diplomatic solution to the crisis can be found. Sure, it would be helpful if [Russian President Vladimir] Putin told Assad that his time was up, but Putin’s in no hurry to abandon his own throne in Moscow; why would he ever urge Assad to step down in Damascus? And why would Assad listen to him if he did? . . . .
But if the White House wants to spur defections from the Assad regime and promote a swift collapse, it should stop waiting for the Russians and go around them, as well as the air defenses they sold to the Syrians. Take a few tanks or artillery pieces off the board and there will be plenty of defections from the Syrian military. Target the presidential palace in Damascus, headquarters of military intelligence, and the barracks of the notoriously vicious intelligence arm of the Syrian Air Force, and then there will be a surge of momentum for a diplomatic solution.
Now, let’s recall that the Obama White House has never been good at using military force or even the threat of military force to up its diplomatic leverage. It seems to be under the illusion that only when force is out of the picture can diplomats do their work.
Even if some in the White House comprehend the strategic importance of Assad’s political demise, the human rights atrocities underway and the degree to which U.S air power could positively affect the outcome, it’s clear the president does not have his heart in this. His impulse, if not his obsession, is to exit the United States from military engagements (e.g. Iraq, Afghanistan), avoid military action even at the risk of significant strategic losses (Syria, Iran) and label those who disagree as engaging in irresponsible bluster or “beating the drums of war.” In this case his ideological preference (“U.S. intervention in the world is generally a mistake”), election strategy (no conflicts) and domestic priorities (bleed the defense budget to feed his welfare state) all point in one direction. And in dispensing intelligence personnel to spin up the media, the administration attempts to persuade us that it is a lost cause anyway.
Unfortunately for the people of Syria, our passivity is deliberate and comes with its own PR campaign. They are essentially on their own.