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Obama's Syria Policy a Mess

8:01 AM, Jun 15, 2013 • By LEE SMITH
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Thursday the White House announced that the American intelligence community assesses, with a level of high confidence, that the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against the opposition multiple times, in a limited fashion. Now that it is clear Assad has crossed the Obama red line by using chemical weapons, the question is, has this changed the president’s “calculus,” as he said it might? The media is reporting that it has. According to the press, Obama has decided to arm the opposition.

Barack Obama delivers inaugural address 1-20-09 090120-A-8725H-285

The White House, writes the New York Times, will “begin supplying the rebels for the first time with small arms and ammunition, according to American officials.” USA Today concurs, quoting an unnamed official “knowledgeable about the plans” who “confirmed to USA TODAY that the new assistance would include arming the rebels.” The Wall Street Journal explains that “Obama issued a “classified order directing the Central Intelligence Agency to coordinate arming the rebels in concert with its allies.”

However, there are other administration officials who tell the press that the White House is not going to send weapons to the opposition. Josh Rogin at the Daily Beast writes that his source “says that lethal arms are not part of the new items Obama has now authorized.” “The president,” says this official, “has made a decision to provide the Syrian opposition with military items that can increase their effectiveness on the ground, but at this point it does not include things like guns and bullets.”

So is the White House arming the rebels or not? There’s been confusion since Thursday afternoon when Sen. John McCain said on the Senate floor that Obama “will announce that we will be assisting the Syrian rebels by providing them with weapons and other assistance. I applaud the president’s decision.” Shortly after, McCain retracted his remarks, explaining that “the president has not made the final decision on arming.” Afterward, McCain’s spokesman, Josh Rogin reported, said the senator had been told by reliable sources that Obama was planning to arm the rebels.

A White House conference call with reporters Thursday afternoon hardly clarified matters. Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes was asked several times whether the White House intended to arm the rebels, or if it was just going to provide more of the direct non-lethal military assistance (like vehicles and night-vision goggles) that was promised in April but still hasn’t reached the Syrian Military Council. “I can’t go through an inventory of the type of assistance that we’re going to provide,” said Rhodes. “But suffice it to say it’s going to be substantively different from what we were providing certainly before our initial [chemical weapons] assessment in April.” Responding to another request for details, Rhodes said, “I’m not going to be able to inventory the types of support that we’re going to provide to the SMC.” Later there was more of the same: “We’re just not going to be able to lay out an inventory,” said Rhodes, “of what exactly falls under the scope of that assistance other than to communicate that we have made that decision.”

What we know then from the administration’s public and on the record statements is this: the White House is going to do more than what it was doing before. But we don’t know if that includes weapons or just more non-lethal aid and equipment because the White House’s point man for strategic communications won’t say—he can’t inventory—what’s being sent. All of the reporting asserting that the administration is sending arms was sourced not to Rhodes’s public remarks but to officials who because they are unnamed have no reason to fear that their credibility is on the line should their information prove inaccurate or false. 

In other words, we still don’t know whether the White House is going to arm the Syrian opposition, or if Obama just means to create the impression that he is indeed enforcing his red lines. In either case, it’s a mess.

If the administration really is sending weapons then this constitutes a major policy shift. You’d think Obama might want to announce that policy himself since it was his red line Assad crossed—or if not the president then at least the national security advisor or some other senior official responsible for policy decisions. Instead, it’s handed off to a deputy in charge of strategic communications who either cannot or will not communicate what the policy is—which, depending on whether or not Obama has decided to arm the rebels, may or may not have been leaked to the press by anonymous sources, presumably sources at least as reliable as those who told McCain the president was arming the rebels, until a more reliable source told McCain that the president has not made that decision. Did someone actually choose to roll out the policy in this fashion, or does it simply reflect the incoherence of the White House’s Syria policy and the incompetence of administration policymakers?

At least Rhodes was clear on one thing regarding Syria policy: “a political settlement,” he said in the conference call Thursday, “is still the preferable outcome.” Why is that? Because without a political settlement, explained Rhodes, “you’re going to have [the Syrian] conflict continue until somebody prevails in that conflict.” What Rhodes seems to be saying here is that the United States has an interest in stopping the fighting, but no interest in seeing the side the White House is assisting, and perhaps arming, defeat Assad and his allies, Iran and Hezbollah. Therefore, if the administration is arming the rebels the purpose is only to even the sides, somewhat, to compel Assad to negotiate.

The problem with this idea is that Assad is more than happy to deal under such circumstances. If the administration says it has no interest in seeing one side prevail, then it has no will, or ability, to force Assad from power. Of course the administration believes, as Rhodes said, that “Bashar al-Assad can’t be a part of the future of Syria,” but this is just rhetoric. The reality is that without the weapons to drive Assad from power, the White House, as John Kerry has said, finally has no say in the matter. It’s up to Syrians to decide if Assad stays—or more particularly those Syrians with more guns, supplied by the Russians, and allies like Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah.

Thankfully, there is little likelihood of a political settlement between the two sides, a settlement that would inevitably benefit American adversaries, especially the Islamic Republic of Iran. Due to the nature and magnitude of the support that Iran has leveraged in Syria—weapons as well as troops, its own in addition to Hezbollah’s and Iranian-backed Iraqi militias—Assad’s ruling clique in Damascus is effectively little more at this point than an Iranian vassal. A negotiated settlement then would be nothing but a recognition of Iranian sway over Syria, which would spell disaster for the United States and its allies in the region, especially those bordering Syria, like Turkey, Jordan, and Israel. However, the Syrian rebels will make an agreement all but impossible.

As Michael Doran explained, a deal between the opposition and the regime “is utterly fanciful.” Assad, Doran wrote, “will never negotiate himself out of a job. Even if he was inclined to do so—and he is not—a deal is a practical impossibility, due to the fractiousness of the opposition. Rebel leaders speak only for their own groups. An agreement by one leader would never be binding on the others. The war will go on no matter what.”

The administration has long complained of the opposition’s fragmentation, seeking leaders and institutions to make it cohere, while sidelining other rebel outfits it found problematic. In December, the White House designated Jabhat al-Nusra, an al Qaeda affiliate, a foreign terrorist organization in an effort to isolate it and emphasize American concerns of a growing extremist current in the opposition. Indeed, one of the reasons the administration has offered for not arming the rebels is that it doesn’t want American weapons in the hands of al Qaeda. That’s sensible enough, and it also explains why the administration has made no place for Jabhat al-Nusra at the negotiating table. However, the reality is that without these groups, which are among the opposition’s most effective fighting units, buying into a deal there can be no negotiated settlement that saves Assad and enhances Iran and Russia’s position in the eastern Mediterranean at the expense of American interests. In other words, Obama’s Syria policy is so incoherent that it is only the opposition’s fractiousness and al Qaeda’s deadly fanatacism that is preventing the White House from shooting itself in the foot.

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