When it comes to the ongoing and increasingly brutal war in Syria that is killing kids and bombing families, the United States may be able to take military action — and may even see the Joint Chiefs and others in the interagency pushing more vocally for it in the aftermath of the collapse of U.S.-Russia talks. But President Barack Obama’s administration is not yet willing. And there is no sign it will be anytime soon.
For many inside the Obama administration the priority is to make certain that 2016 is not 2003, and that no “quagmire” of a war in the Middle East which “diminishes our security,” as Obama has said, is undertaken — a worldview otherwise known among his staff as “don’t do stupid shit.”
The battle over Syria far closer to home is inside the Obama administration, with the CIA, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, and increasingly some members of the Joint Chiefs more “forward leaning” than ever, in the words of Obama administration officials I spoke with who favor greater intervention in Syria. But a larger and decidedly solid core of White House officials still opposes greater military intervention into the Syrian conflict that is not specifically about the fight against ISIS.
So what military options, exactly, are on the table?
Air strikes targeting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces that are aimed at keeping planes from flying over Aleppo and bombing civilians are under consideration, with the idea that any military action would be done covertly.
But even those who favor increased U.S. military action don’t expect to see it any time soon. Instead they now say they expect to see Aleppo fall while the U.S. keeps focus on the fight to oust the Islamic State from its stronghold in Raqqa. The Obama White House has long argued that it was elected to end wars in the Middle East, not to escalate them, and its officials expressed that view this week from the White House podium.
“One of the lessons that the president believes we all learned, based on the ill-advised effort by the Bush administration to intervene and occupy Iraq. The long-term consequences of that decision and of those orders have had a significant and negative consequence on our standing in the international community and on our national security,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said this week. “So as the president considers the options that are available to him inside of Syria, he’s mindful of the need to think ahead and to look around the curve, and to think about the potential impact not just weeks or months in advance, but — or not just weeks and months after a potential military invasion, for example, but rather to think about the years’ long consequences of ordering an action like that.”
And as Earnest noted on the question of strikes in particular:
“There’s a risk associated with taking strikes at regime targets. That risk includes attacking a regime that does continue to maintain a robust air defense system. It also edges U.S. and Russian military forces closer to confrontation. That doesn’t serve anybody’s interest.”
Earnest went on to say that he would not “take anything off the table,” but “the president, as he thinks through those options, is going to think very carefully about the consequences of taking individual actions.”
Yet for those on the ground inside Syria, the international community and its “responsibility to protect” has now become a thing of fiction. At least until the next American president reaches office. In Tuesday’s vice presidential debate, both candidates advocated for humanitarian “safe zones” inside Syria, though neither discussed in detail how that would be achieved without bumping right into the Obama administration’s fear of bumping into Russian air power.
So in the end this latest round of discussion about escalation and intervention on Syria is likely to end where it began: with a lot of discussion and quite little action because the way may be there, but the will is not. And for those civilians 6,000 miles away in Aleppo, the days ahead looks just as misery-ridden as the bloodshed behind: full of carnage and bunker-busting munitions with rockets falling on children and no hope of escape for anyone.