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Adrift in Syria

Jul 1, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 40 • By LEE SMITH
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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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