A group of Syrian rebels gather their weapons before confronting government troops in Aleppo

A group of Syrian rebels gather their weapons before confronting government troops in Aleppo Khalil Hamra/AP

Whispers in the Ranks that Iraq Has Turned Obama Isolationist to a Fault

Some in Obama’s diplomatic corps fear the president has “learned all the wrong things from Iraq” -- a deadly lesson for Syria’s rebels. By Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

In a recent interview with National Public Radio, a Syrian rebel commander, formerly a Syrian Army colonel, said what many in Washington have whispered: It is “our bad luck” that Syria “has come after Afghanistan and after Iraq.”

A State Department official told me last April that it was their belief that the Obama Administration was “learning all the wrong things from Iraq” in pursuing a “containment” strategy in Syria. The administration, the official said, would eventually find it had lost the once-available chance to support moderate forces seeking American support; forces which could have provided a counter to Iranian-backed Hezbollah -- and that inaction would have consequences.

Today as foreign fighters stream into Syria from neighboring countries and concern grows that militants from around the region are carving out expanding corners of influence in the country, the talk of Obama’s missed opportunities and future threats hangs over the discussion.  

Here’s what has happened: In June, the Obama administration announced it would send small arms to Syrian rebels fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Authorization for that support was stuck in Congress for weeks as Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden headed to the Hill to appeal to skeptical lawmakers to approve the move. The dramatic announcement was widely seen as too little, too late, by many on the ground and in Washington who have argued for more forceful U.S. action. Today, as Syria approaches the wrenching milestone of its millionth child refugee, little other lethal aid appears in the offing.

“Public opinion and failures in the past are running against a heavy involvement, as indeed is our economy situation, and we are prepared to let me more things fester on their own than get deeply involved,” said Amb. Thomas Pickering in an interview.

One emerging similarity to the Iraq war experience possibly driving the administration’s reticence concerns the surging numbers of extremist fighters congregating in Syria.

“The one thing that is being underestimated is the size of the jihadi presence that is beginning to emerge in Syria. It’s a magnet,” said former Amb. Dennis Ross, who likens Syria today to Afghanistan in the 1980s. He estimates the number of foreign fighters at approaching 20,000, and climbing. “If Syria at some point becomes like Yemen, we will be sucked in, there is no doubt.”

In 2008, President Obama campaigned on a platform of ending the war in Iraq and reinforcing American efforts in Afghanistan, which he called the “war we have to win.”  Now, after a decade of fighting and thousands of war dead, America is a nation beset by fatigue, grown comfortable with remote-control drone attacks that do not involve soldiers on the ground.  

Behind the policy of the Obama White House’s current minimalist approach on Syria lies not just Iraq, but the Afghan war, now in its second decade and an involvement in Libya that has yet to lead to a stable on-the-ground reality.

“You look at Syria: if Iraq and Afghanistan hadn’t taken place, in my mind it is inconceivable that we would have taken the path that we have,” says Ross. “The pressures would have been dramatic on us to do something.”

The Pentagon shares the White House’s wariness. Last month, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said greater U.S. military action in Syria would cost “billions” and be “no less than an act of war.”

“We have learned from the past 10 years; however, that it is not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consideration of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state,” Dempsey wrote in a letter to Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “We must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action.”

World-weary exhaustion in Washington seems to be taking even energetic diplomatic engagement off the table, say several seasoned diplomats.

“Despite the obvious distaste for the costs and failures in Iraq, we seem to have somehow diminished the notion that political settlements and political activities play any role at all,” said Pickering, who recently co-chaired a review panel investigating the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Amb. Chris Stevens. “There is the minimization of U.S. possibilities, some of it coming with the declining influence of the U.S., and my view is that one of the answers to this is that we have to work in a larger group. But we now have become, in effect, so un-influential and we are not prepared to spend the time with other people.”

Pickering says that to answer the question of whether it is America’s responsibility to get more involved in Syria, the administration would have to set long-term strategic priorities regarding the country. So far he hasn’t seen it.

“There is in some ways, on some of these questions, a kind of push-off of the issue or an unwillingness to want to address it just through fatigue or maybe a conscious decision to prioritize it low enough so that you don’t have to,” Pickering says.  “Are we capable of prioritizing our involvement? Not very well and often it is a result of domestic political contention rather than a hard-nosed evaluation of U.S. interest.”

Ross agrees.

“You have to start by having a very clear objective, and I don’t know that we have ever really established a clear objective,” Ross says.  “Our objective looks more like: ‘How do we try to minimize our involvement, and how do we try to minimize the fallout effect on the areas around Syria, and how do we get Iran and Hezbollah to not look like they have prevailed?’ Those are preferences but are they real objectives?”

Ross, for his part, is quick to acknowledge there are no good options for U.S. involvement in Syria. But he fears that “there is a greater risk of being drawn in at a certain point when the situation is worse, the options are worse and the price goes up.”

Pickering put forward his own plan to push for a humanitarian cease fire in Syria and move toward diplomatic engagement on a political solution from there, but has so far found few takers within the administration.

“It has been a lesson all along – for this administration and before,” Pickering says.  “It is a big problem for the United States; if we are not prepared to define our interests in hard-nosed ways then we tend to get ourselves into strategic messes.”