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Three Years of War in Syria

And three years of foreign policy missteps.

8:35 AM, Mar 15, 2014 • By LEE SMITH
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As the death toll mounted, some lawmakers, like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham and former Senator Joe Lieberman, called for international airpower, led by the United States, to create a no-fly zone, or a buffer zone, offering civilians some refuge from the regime’s depredations. Pentagon officials explained this wasn’t as easy as it sounded—the Syrians had serious Russian-made air defense systems that, to hear then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey tell it, were virtually impregnable. McCain bristled. “We spend almost $1 trillion a year on the military,” he told CNN. “And we can’t take out air defenses of Syria? That is a horrific waste of the taxpayers’ dollars.”

Yet another White House talking point is that Assad is an albatross for Iran. Syria, so went the common wisdom, is the Islamic Republic’s Vietnam. “I'm always darkly amused by this notion that somehow Iran has won in Syria,” Obama told journalist Jeffrey Goldberg recently. “I mean, you hear sometimes people saying, ‘They’re winning in Syria.’ And you say, ‘This was their one friend in the Arab world, a member of the Arab League, and it is now in rubble.’ It’s bleeding them because they’re having to send in billions of dollars. Their key proxy, Hezbollah, which had a very comfortable and powerful perch in Lebanon, now finds itself attacked by Sunni extremists. This isn’t good for Iran. They’re losing as much as anybody.”

And yet, contrary to the White House’s understanding, Tehran believes that there is indeed a military solution—win. Instead of building up a proxy force to take on Iranian allies, the White House chided the opposition’s political leadership. And arming the military leadership, said Obama, was a fool’s errand. After all, what chance did a rag-tag bunch of professionals and semi-skilled laborers have against the mighty Syrian army? “When you have a professional army that is well-armed and sponsored by two large states who have huge stakes in this,” said Obama, “and they are fighting against a farmer, a carpenter, an engineer who started out as protesters and suddenly now see themselves in the midst of a civil conflict -- the notion that we could have, in a clean way that didn’t commit U.S. military forces, changed the equation on the ground there was never true.”

The White House seems incapable of deciding whether the rebels are an outgrowth of the civilian opposition movement or al Qaeda. The notion that anti-Assad fighters were dominated by jihadists became the most successful component of the administration’s messaging campaign. Why, went the common refrain, should the United States be al Qaeda’s air force? Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged in a hearing on Capitol Hill that there were plenty of non-al Qaeda units in the Free Syrian Army worthy of American support. But facts weren’t going to change Obama’s mind, nor were Cabinet officials and Obama aides, virtually all of whom, the New York Times reported in October, argued on behalf of arming the rebels. But not even the use of chemical weapons would force Obama’s hand.

In June the White House revealed that American intelligence had a level of high confidence in its assessment that Assad had crossed the president’s red line and used chemical weapons in an April attack. Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications and an Obama confidante, was tasked with rolling out what seemed to be a new policy—the White House, so went the rumors, was now going to arm the rebels. In a June 13 phone call with reporters, Rhodes proved evasive. Journalists repeatedly pressed to find out what kind of aid the administration had in mind, if it was just more nonlethal military assistance, like vehicles and night-vision goggles, that the White House had previously promised and failed to deliver, or if Obama was really going to send weapons. “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.

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