President Obama meeting with his national security team in the Situation Room
President Obama meeting with his national security team in the Situation Room // The White House

Inside Obama’s Syria Deliberations: ‘The Promise of More Discussion’

In 2011, President Obama said, “The time has come for President Assad to step aside.” Today the Syrian president is America’s silent negotiating partner in the push to certify Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile. The journey between those two points has been marked by a “just-in-time” foreign policy, guided by the idea that America could not definitively shape the outcome of Syria’s civil war once Assad’s opposition took up arms.

The past two years have seen a slew of internal policy deliberations lead to the same conclusion: The president did not want to get the U.S. military involved in a war whose end neither he nor his advisors could predict. While the stated “red line” and Syria’s use of chemical weapons forced Obama’s hand — leading some of his own national security advisors to pitch for U.S. military involvement —  it did not change the president’s mind about the desirability of sustained and extended American military involvement in another conflict in the Middle East.  

A series of discussions over the past several months with those close to Syria policy reveal what they refer to as a great deal of administration handwringing — and a whole lot of compromises — as the White House pursued a “minimalist” approach to Syria that allowed America to pursue the least-lousy option among many. While some advisors who favored greater military intervention walked away from the debate frustrated with repeated discussions and delayed decisions, the president in the end remained close to his initial view, as the administration struggled with three competing realities.

First, the United States did not want to enter another war after a decade of battle in Iraq and Afghanistan. Second, the president and his administration had called publicly for Assad to go. Third, the United States is not a nation that usually witnesses butchery in real-time and does nothing. 

This policy triangle proved difficult to square. The administration has talked regime change while practicing what was, in effect, soft containment plus humanitarian assistance. That course has sowed confusion inside and outside the White House about what exactly America’s strategy was when it came to Syria.

In the past year, several active policy interventions have been considered, some of them using the U.S. military according to several insiders familiar with the conversations. These include arming and paying salaries for moderate rebels — an idea that went up and down the decision-making process several times. Eventually, the administration opted to provide limited, small arms support last June, following a chemical weapons attack. Those arms took months to actually reach the rebels after the idea hit the roadblock of congressional skepticism.

Also under consideration in recent months: giving greater resources and strengthened diplomatic support to the Syrian Opposition Coalition office in Washington, DC, as well as providing human rights and laws of war training to the rebels. .Pocket guides on international humanitarian law were distributed earlier this year alongside some Meals Ready to Eat to Syrian rebel fighting units in the north.

Yet even as a menu of policy options has been under regular review the Syrian civil war placed the limits of American power in sharp relief. While some opposition leaders were well known to American policy makers, the complex internal dynamics among the political players has complicated the idea of supporting them militarily.

The administration also has not been able to find a satisfactory answer to the all-important question of “And then what?” should Assad fall, particularly given the undeniable reality that American troops on the ground were not ever going to happen. Political divisions among the rebels made arguing for U.S. troop involvement as a viable alternative to Assad ever more complicated, particularly as extremists piled into Syria to join rebels fighting Assad and his Iranian-backed Hezbollah allies.

The sense was always Gen. Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn rule” —  that if the Americans broke it they owned it.  And America already had enough of two wars. So the decision was made to stay as far from the room as feasible, while doing more on the humanitarian front, say officials familiar with the conversations.

Throughout months of interagency discussion, the State Department remained the most vocal supporter of greater diplomatic and military action in Syria. Each time momentum changed on the ground, or the regime’s tactics grew even more brutal, those supporting greater military intervention from inside and outside the administration raised the question again: Can and should the U.S. do more?  Each time, the interagency consensus choice was the least interventionist of the policy options, including non-lethal aid to the non-violent opposition, because every time the rebels came up in the discussions so did the accompanying question: How can the U.S. be sure lethal support would end up in moderate hands and not line the pockets of extremists who eventually would seek to harm America?

Those familiar with the conversations say that National Security Council’s Deputies Committee meetings often ended with the promise of more discussion.

As one U.S. official said, “If I had a dollar for every time someone said ‘no decision was made at the DC’ I would be wealthy.”

At the same time, the administration’s communications team asked the question: \Why aren’t we getting more credit for the humanitarian work we are doing?  They worked to get the word out on better news stories reflecting American involvement, to little avail.

With each shift of the balance of power in Syria, lethal options were revisited, leading to a process that those close to it say revealed a disconnect between where the president himself was and the national security policy options being prepared for his review.

“There was a pretty consistent set of decisions that kept coming back from the president that seemed in a very different place from the policy process itself,” said an official familiar with Syria policy. “You end up with these halfway approaches; there have been a lot of half measures, and that is what I think is problematic.”

Also challenging was the president’s decision to go to Congress for the authorization of force resolution. Many charged with selling the president’s policy learned about it from watching Obama’s Rose Garden speech.

“It just seems there is never any strategy; it is tactics and the tactics change because there is no strategy,” said one person familiar with the internal dynamics of the Syria resolution congressional vote push. 

Now comes the accidental diplomatic opening for the U.S. to bring Syrian chemical weapons under international control even as the conventional war’s bloodshed and violence continues. Efforts are underway to help convince the Syrian rebels to come to the table in hopes of a diplomatic breakthrough at Geneva 2.  But the Geneva communiqué of last year is built upon the idea of a “transitional governing body” that “would exercise full executive powers.” And it is hard to see how Assad rushes to embrace Geneva 2, now that he has become a partner to a very different set of Geneva discussions.

Understanding that reality, the opposition is unlikely to go to Geneva 2 without a host of incentives. They will have to be convinced that the negotiations will be more than an empty exercise, no matter how much their American and international supporters might want them to embrace the idea.   

“No one thinks that Bashar is going to go to Geneva with any intentions of actually meaningfully negotiating toward a legitimate settlement,” says Dan Layman, a spokesman for the Syrian Support Group, a U.S.-based advocacy group with extensive contacts to the Free Syrian Army. “Until he is really given a coercive reason to have to go negotiate I don’t think any attempts to negotiate by the regime are going to be anything more than superficial.”

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