It is now official: the program to arm and train Syrian moderates, the one that leapt from “fantasy” to policy priority between August and September of last year is now officially winding down. Its failure leaves the administration facing options it doesn’t care for in a war it doesn’t want to enter in a world that has made American inaction almost as hard to imagine as American intervention.
Elected to end wars, not begin new ones, President Barack Obama has shied away from heavy intervention in Syria ever since the uprising began more than four years ago. The White House’s numerous Syria-policy discussions have almost always ended with a decision against greater support to Syrian moderate opposition or no decision at all, according to current and former administration officials working on Syria policy.
“It wasn’t a very rich debate about Syria writ large, it was just a very flat, stale predictable set of discussions at the highest levels and that didn’t change from year to year all that much,” said one former senior administration official. “We were a little detached from the conflict because we had the impression we could keep the lid on it, and looking back, I think that was clearly wishful thinking.”
Said this former official, “The goal of U.S. policy from day one was not to get engaged and that has failed. We are there.”
Now, with ISIS showing no signs of collapse, a humanitarian catastrophe spilling into Europe, and Russia launching its own military operations in Syria, the Obama administration is once again deliberating policy options.
Last week, the President met over lunch with Robert Ford, the former ambassador to Syria who publicly broke with the administration over its Syria policy; and Ryan Crocker, a storied diplomat who served in Syria and turned down the Syrian envoy role in 2013.
“I don’t want to comment on last week at all except to say that for a long time my sense of what needs to be done in Syria and the impact of Syria on regional interests has not always been the same as other people in the administration,” Ford said. “That is why I needed to leave. And that hasn’t changed.”
Ford, like other former administration officials, said that the reluctance to intervene began at the very top — with the president.
“There has always been in this administration a deep reluctance to get very involved in Syria. And they view even providing material assistance to elements of the opposition a form of deep involvement,” Ford said. “Of course, in the end what has happened is that they have often waited for the perfect at the expense of the good, so by 2014, instead of having Syria indigenous forces fighting the Islamic State and prevailing, we had to use American air power, which is more expensive and will damage our credibility even more if it is not successful.”
Administration officials now working on Syria policy say they are hashing out what further intervention might look like and what kind of support to offer those who have received American training.
“This is no longer about moderates or not moderates, because the Russians are taking them out,” says one administration official familiar with current conversations. “So people say, ‘Okay, we cede Syria to Iran, Hizbollah and Russia,’ or we feel we need to be involved in this game so we can continue to have a hope of countering ISIL and having enough leverage to influence the search for a political solution.”
Conversations are said to be underway now that will be “resolved by next week” surrounding the CIA-backed program to support rebel fighters and how much support those fighters might hope to receive.
“The final moment of truth is if they fail at adequately protecting the moderates the Russians are seeking to destroy,” the official said.