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Adrift in Syria

Jul 1, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 40 • By LEE SMITH
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Two weeks ago, the Obama administration seemed to announce a major reversal of policy: In light of the American intelligence community’s finding, with a high level of confidence, that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons against the opposition, the White House was going to arm the Syrian rebels.

Syrian rebels in Aleppo, June 20, 2013

Syrian rebels in Aleppo, June 20, 2013

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For more than a year and a half, ever since the Sunni-majority opposition took up weapons to defend itself against a brutal regime firing on unarmed demonstrators, Obama had resisted arming the rebels. The opposition was too fragmented, administration officials said at first. Then the concern was that the rebels were indeed coming under a central command, that of al Qaeda. The White House reasoned that it couldn’t very well send weapons if it didn’t know who it was arming. Nonetheless, Obama warned last summer that if Assad used unconventional weapons, that would change his calculus. And so when the Damascus regime crossed the president’s brightly drawn red line, the game changed.

Or did it?

In fact, it’s still not clear what the White House is doing. In a June 13 conference call with reporters ostensibly rolling out the new policy, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications Ben Rhodes failed to provide any details. Reporters asked several times what kind of aid the administration had in mind, and whether Obama was actually going to arm the rebels. “We’re just not going to be able to lay out an inventory of what exactly falls under the scope of that assistance,” said Rhodes.

Last week, Obama himself addressed the Syria issue, without providing any more clarity than his point man for strategic communications. In an appearance on the Charlie Rose show, the commander in chief told his host, “I’ve said I’m ramping up support for both the political and military opposition. I’ve not specified exactly what we’re doing, and I won’t do so on this show.”

Maybe someone in the White House is advising Obama that obfuscation and ambiguity make a president look presidential. His administration is stealthy and indirect—instead of communicating with the public through press conferences, it prefers leaking to the media via unnamed officials. Accordingly, it was through several press reports that the “inventory,” as Rhodes repeatedly called it, was laid out. The White House will send the rebels small arms and ammunition—lethal aid, to be sure, but hardly game-changing, or even likely to tilt the balance of power on the ground in Syria.

Even Obama’s secretary of state realizes this isn’t enough. John Kerry petitioned for U.S. strikes against Syrian airfields but, as Jeffrey Goldberg reported last week, was rebuffed by chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey. It would take 700 sorties, Dempsey told Kerry, just “to neutralize Syria’s integrated air-defense system.”

We don’t know how Kerry responded (Goldberg writes that he “gave as good as he got”), and maybe he asked Dempsey how he came up with that number. In the last year, the Israelis have gotten around Syria’s now-famed air defenses three times without any loss of men or materiel. So why would it take the United States 700 sorties? Why not 7, or 70, or 7,000? What’s the math and where’s the paperwork? Is the assessment based on the patently unimpressive record of Syrian air defenses? Or is it simply, as Elliott Abrams wrote last week, Dempsey’s way of saying, “I don’t want to.”

Dempsey was really making a policy argument, Abrams explained, augmenting it with a “ridiculous military argument that should have been shot down with alacrity.” The problem, however, is that it’s not Dempsey’s policy but Obama’s. The Kerry-Dempsey showdown is merely a play within the play, directed by the president himself.

“If you haven’t been in the Situation Room,” Obama told Charlie Rose, 

poring through intelligence and meeting directly with our military folks and asking what are all our options and examining what are all the consequences and understanding that, for example, if you set up a no-fly zone that you may not be actually solving the problem on the ground or if you set up a humanitarian corridor are you, in fact, committed not only to stopping aircraft from going over that corridor but also missiles? And if so does that mean that you then have to take out the armaments in Damascus? And are you prepared then to bomb Damascus?

It apparently wasn’t enough for Obama to talk about the Situation Room on national TV. The scene needed to be staged with dramatis personae. So Dempsey, standing in for Obama, played the voice of reason and experience, and Kerry the wild-eyed interventionist—or, in more neutral terms, anyone who thinks Obama has mishandled Syria since the beginning of the uprising in March 2011. “Unless you’ve been involved in those conversations,” Obama told Rose, “then it’s kind of hard for you to understand the complexities of the situation.”

For Obama, everything about Syria is complex—its vaunted air defenses, Iran’s massive investment there in men, money, and arms, Russia’s intractable diplomatic position, and especially the rebels themselves. “The people who are being suppressed inside of Syria who developed into a military opposition,” said Obama, “are carpenters and you know blacksmiths and dentists. These aren’t professional fighters. .  .  . I don’t think that anybody would suggest that somehow that there was a ready-made military opposition inside of Syria that could somehow have quickly and cleanly defeated the Syrian Army or Assad or overthrown it.”

Rose might have asked the president for the intelligence community’s assessment: Are the rebels dentists or al Qaeda? He also might have noted that rebellions are often waged by nonprofessional fighters. The American Revolution, for instance, was fought largely by blacksmiths and carpenters. It is only Obama who believes that uprisings are typically packaged with a “ready-made military opposition.” The reality is not that Syria’s complexities are beyond the ken of mortals denied access to the Situation Room, but that the man elected to make policies on behalf of a superpower that address the world’s most complex situations is simply confused. It is in the national interest to ensure that the regime in its entirety, and not merely Assad himself, is toppled. With the end state in mind, it should not be difficult to make policy to bring that about.

“I hear debates out there,” Obama told Rose, “folks saying, you know, ‘Katie, bar the door, let’s just go in and knock out Syria.’ ” Perhaps this line kicked off the laugh-track when it was rehearsed in the Oval Office, but it’s an absurd caricature of the White House’s critics, including it seems, those within the administration who believe that the president’s Syria policy, more than two years on, is still adrift.

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