Today marks the third anniversary of the beginning of the Syrian rebellion, a popular uprising that started as a protest movement and degenerated into a civil war that has already claimed more than 146,000 lives. As the White House has come to enumerate the various reasons why it has balked at arming the rebels—they’re fragmented, they’re farmers, they’re al Qaeda—it’s worth remembering that even before the opposition picked up weapons to defend itself against a regime shooting at unarmed protestors, it took Obama nearly half a year before he called for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to step aside.
The administration’s Syria policy has been incoherent from the outset. Instead of pursuing actions calibrated to advance American interests while preventing a humanitarian disaster affecting not just Syrians but U.S. allies on Syria’s borders, the White House has engaged in a three-year long messaging campaign meant to protect the president’s flank. The question that three years worth of evasion and disinformation from the White House raises is simply this: why the lies?
If, as Obama says, the American people are war weary and want no further involvement in the conflicts of the Middle East, why not just leave it at that? After all, with the majority of the American public against any military action in Syria—a public that, from his perspective, has elected him president twice to extricate the United States from regional bloodshed and not further implicate us—why not just say that he won’t budge? Neither the torture of innocents can move him, nor the use of rape as an instrument of terror. The murder of children, killed by Assad’s barrel bombs in their sleep, cannot force his hand. Nor can the regime’s deployment of its chemical weapons arsenal force him to take action, as he showed in striking a deal with Vladimir Putin to get rid of Assad’s unconventional weapons. Nay, not pestilence, nor even the four horsemen of the apocalypse can move Obama. But if the president believes that the American public is in broad agreement to do nothing, why not just say plainly that he, in line with their way of thinking, is not going to do anything?
The history of the Syrian civil war is also a chronicle of White House mendacity. Taken as a whole, the breadth and audacity of the administration’s three-year-long misinformation campaign—waged against a U.S. public ostensibly friendly to its policy of non-intervention—is astonishing.
At first, the White House let on that things in Syria just weren’t that bad. As then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reasoned, unlike Libya’s Qaddafi, Assad wasn’t using planes to shoot his opposition. Clinton’s talking point on the use of fixed-wing aircraft was quietly dropped after Assad began to strafe and bomb civilian areas.
Then administration officials leaked to the press that it was the Israelis who stopped them. Jerusalem, said Obama aides, had warned the White House against toppling the devil they knew. Israel’s then-ambassador to the United States Michael Oren wrote to the Wall Street Journal on two occasions to correct the record—“I emphatically denied this the first time and categorically deny it again,” wrote Oren. “The violence [Assad] has unleashed on his own people demonstrating for freedoms confirms Israel’s fears that the devil we know in Syria is worse than the devil we don’t.” By May 2011 Israel’s top officials—the prime minister, defense minister, foreign minister, and president—had stated publicly that they were eager to see Assad gone, three months before Obama did.
When the opposition picked up weapons in self-defense, the administration said it didn’t know who the rebels were and was reluctant to give them arms that might wind up being used against allies like Israel. And the White House didn’t need to arm the rebels anyway, officials argued, because Assad’s downfall was a matter of when, not if. He’s a dead man walking, said one of the administration’s Syria hands.