Syrian President Bashar al Assad speaks with troops on the front lines in Damascus, Syria, on January 1, 2015.

Syrian President Bashar al Assad speaks with troops on the front lines in Damascus, Syria, on January 1, 2015. AP photo/SANA

Obama Insiders Divided About Shifting Fight From Assad to ISIS

To save Syria, destroy ISIS? Not Assad? Not everyone in Obama’s administration agrees you can have one without the other.

In 2011, President Barack Obama said, “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”

Three and a half years, 200,000 deaths and more than 3 million refugees later, Assad shows no signs of abandoning the Syrian presidency. The mission that “Assad must go” has been replaced by “ISIS must be destroyed” as the priority policy of the current conflict.

Recent history has left several lessons in its wake. President George H.W. Bush was criticized for leaving Saddam Hussein in place at Iraq’s helm following the first Gulf War. A decade later, President George W. Bush launched a ground war and saw Hussein hang, but at the cost of leaving America with a bloody, protracted conflict in Iraq with which it continues to grapple today – with no end in sight.

Today, Obama has made “Iraq first” the centerpiece of his anti-ISIS and Syria conflict strategy. But there are competing views inside the White House over what to do about Assad, Syria, ISIS, Iraq, all of it, according to several sources inside and outside of the Obama administration. On one side are those pushing for a sustained and well-funded train and equip strategy for Syrian rebels, which includes significant arms. On the other side, another group embraces the view that the U.S. should focus on pushing ISIS back in Iraq while quietly allowing for the likelihood that Assad must stay, if only because there is no guarantee of what will come after him. And there is indeed certainty that Moscow and Tehran have a stake in keeping Assad in power, at least for now.

Last week, Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said the Pentagon’s training mission would teach Syrians to attack ISIS, defend themselves from attacks (without specifying from whom), and prepare to participate in a political solution to end the civil war there. Missing from that mission: attack and defeat Assad’s Syrian armed forces. Assad’s fate was not mentioned.

(RelatedIs Obama’s ‘Iraq First’ Strategy Working Against ISIS?)

“I feel like half the administration is saying, ‘Put us in the game and let us do this right,’ and the other half is saying, ‘No, we are going to gingerly handle Syria with kid gloves and focus on yielding real results in Iraq,’” said one former senior administration official who worked on foreign policy.

Those in the first camp challenge the idea that Assad can stay while ISIS, or ISIL, must go.  

You cannot defeat ISIL while you have Assad in power and you don't have boots on ground.
Senior Obama administration official

“You cannot defeat ISIL while you have Assad in power and you don't have boots on ground,” said one current administration official familiar with Syria policy. “The policy doesn’t address this – doesn’t link defeating ISIL with ‘Assad must go.’”

“Aid our moderates, pursue the regime and pursue ISIL is a math equation that doesn't add up.”

The link that might make the math work, say current and former officials working on Syria policy, is the train and equip program to aid Syrian moderates, being led by Maj. Gen. Michael Nagata, the special operations commander for Central Command. Obama announced the $500 million program last year, but it has struggled to get off the ground amid continued fighting in Syria, intense discussion among allies about the shape and extent of any anti-Assad effort, and the administration’s decision to focus on fighting ISIL’s advance in Iraq with Iraqi forces.

Nagata has a high reputation around the Pentagon dating back to his time working for the Defense Department’s under secretary for intelligence and later as deputy director for counterterrorism. He gained wider notoriety among top brass and the White House as deputy chief of the U.S. military’s small office in Pakistan. From Islamabad, Nagata would give frank and concise briefings of the often dysfunctional relationship among Afghanistan, Pakistan and the U.S. bogging down the Afghan war.

Now, Nagata wins widespread praise from those who favor more aggressive intervention in Syria, with several people calling him the last, best chance the Syrian moderates have for critical U.S. support. But there is also an acknowledgment of the very real policy limitations he faces.

“There has obviously been a reluctance in Washington to take a dual track approach of fighting ISIS and fighting the Assad regime at a sufficient level from which the opposition can adequately protect the Syrian people,” says Oubai Shahbandar, who worked with the Syrian opposition and now is with Dragoman Partners, a defense and security consulting firm in Abu Dhabi. “The administration will tell you the priority is fighting ISIS in Iraq, which is another way of saying that dealing with Assad is a secondary if not tertiary issue, and that is exactly what Assad wants, to create the specter of ISIS and to create the necessary space from which extremist groups like ISIS can grow and to feed their growth in order to enhance and legitimize his narrative that the Assad regime’s survival is necessary for the rest of the world as a counterbalance to extremists.”

The reality, Shahbandar says, “reflects a lack of understanding inside the administration of how their broader anti-ISIS effort is being hamstrung by their unwillingness to simultaneously prioritize protecting the Syrian populace from the Assad regime’s barrel bombs.”

What is the political objective we’re out to accomplish? Frankly, I don’t know what that is right now.
Ret. Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis

For its part the administration says there is indeed a commitment to protect the people by training and equipping Syrian moderates. As Obama said last month in his State of the Union speech, the U.S. is “supporting a moderate opposition in Syria that can help us in this effort, and assisting people everywhere who stand up to the bankrupt ideology of violent extremism…This effort will take time. It will require focus. But we will succeed."

Still, despite the words, when it comes to the war in Syria, the administration has come under fire for a lack of comprehensive, clearly enunciated policy, including from some of the military leaders who until recently were charged with executing it.

“What is the political objective we’re out to accomplish? Frankly, I don’t know what that is right now,” retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis said last Tuesday. “The clarity and commitment of the U.S. can draw in the full commitment of others.”

And as the Syrian civil war nears the start of its fifth year, clarity remains in very short supply. The only thing nearly everyone can agree on is there is no end to the fighting in sight, more bloodshed on the horizon and an even greater humanitarian crisis up ahead for the millions of refugees fleeing Syria’s deadly war.