Obama’s doctrine on Syria: ‘What we’re trying to do is take sides against extremists’

June 18, 2013

President Obama offered some clues to his thinking on U.S. involvement in Syria in a Monday evening interview with Charlie Rose. He hinted that one of his major goals is to slow or prevent the rise of extremists, such as the al-Qaeda-allied rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra. "Really what we're trying to do is take sides against extremists of all sorts," Obama said. This strategy seems to imply he prefers a political solution over a military one: something that leaves room, though not for President Bashar al-Assad himself, then some elements of his regime. And it seems to suggest that Obama sees the U.S.'s primary enemy as not so much Assad and his regime but extremists, instability and the chaos that fuels both.

The question that many Syria-watchers have been wondering is why, after more than two years and 90,000 civilian deaths, the Obama administration is now stepping up its involvement in Syria. Why, after all the reticence to get involved, did the United States announce it would send small arms to the rebels, a modest step but symbolically significant upgrade? As the Washington Post reported recently, the administration decided weeks ago to send arms and only used its conclusion that Assad's forces had used chemical weapons as a justification.

That Post story reported that the administration's goal in providing arms is to "provide a psychological boost to rebel ­forces" who have been discouraged by Assad's recent military gains and the entrance of Hezbollah on his behalf. Ultimately, the story said, the United States sees an "outright rebel win" as "unlikely and less desirable than a negotiated settlement that leaves Syrian institutions intact." That means some elements of the Assad regime staying on.

This would benefit Syria by preventing a total collapse and political vacuum. But it would also be a bit of a deal with the devil: by definition, negotiating with the Assad regime would require compromises, presumably including its at-least-partial survival.

Based on Obama's comments, he seems to feel strongly about curbing extremism's rise during the conflict. This goal naturally compliments his goal of a political solution: the utter collapse of Syria would likely do great things for groups like Jabhat al-Nusra or others, which flourish in political and security vacuums. It seems that Obama's emerging strategy on Syria, then, is to prevent chaos. That's not necessarily complimentary with, and might even be at odds with, a goal of toppling the Assad regime.

Even if Obama supports arming the rebels, this seems more a reaction to the rebels' recent losses and an effort to keep them strong enough to force Assad to the negotiating table but not necessarily to overrun him. (This is not to argue that Obama is holding back weapons to prevent the rebels from taking Damascus, but rather that he appears unwilling to take the risks – for example, extremists getting their hands on U.S.-distributed shoulder-mounted missiles – necessary to make that happen.)

"I'm not sure you can characterize this as a new policy," Obama told Rose in the interview. "This is consistent with the policy that I've had throughout." He also emphasized the U.S.'s strategic interests in containing chemical weapons and in slowing the flow of refugees and spread of violence beyond Syria's borders, which could potentially destabilize Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.

All of those goals point toward an overarching mission to create stability and prevent chaos. The merits of that mission are obvious, but many Syria-watchers who want to see Assad's regime permanently gone, who want a repeat of the fall of Moammar Gaddafi's regime in Libya, will likely see that Obama's strategy leaves little room for this.

Here, in full, is Obama's articulation of his goals in Syria. If you read closely, you can see him arguing for stability-preservation and a political solution and thus implicitly against a full-on effort, through intervention or other means, to outright topple the Assad regime.

The goals are a stable non-sectarian representative Syrian government that is addressing the needs of its people through political processes and peaceful processes. We're not taking sides in a religious war between Shia and Sunni. Really what we're trying to do is take sides against extremists of all sorts and in favor of people who are in favor of moderation, tolerance, representative government and over the long term stability and prosperity for the people of Syria. And so my goal -- we've been supporting an opposition. We've been trying to help the opposition along with our international partners help the opposition become more cohesive. We've been assisting not only the political opposition but also the military opposition so that there is a counterweight that can potentially lead to political negotiations with the evidence of chemical weapons. What we've said is we're going to ramp up that assistance. And my hope continues to be, however, that we resolve this through some sort of political transition.

He later added, "The matter is that the way these situations get resolved are politically." He also said, "My genuine objective, though, is a Syria that is functioning and is representative and is not engaged in sectarian civil war and, you know, represents all factions within Syria. That's my objective."

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Max Fisher · June 17, 2013