In his April 30 White House press conference, President Obama explained that there’s evidence chemical weapons have been used in Syria, but “we don’t know how they were used, when they were used, and who used them. We don’t have a chain of custody.”
What he meant is that maybe it wasn’t Bashar al-Assad’s regime that gassed its enemies. Maybe rebels lifted some chemical arms from Assad’s massive stockpile. As if to substantiate Obama’s conjecture, Syria’s ambassador to the U.N. Bashar al-Jaafari at roughly the same time as Obama’s press conference accused the rebels of a chemical weapons attack near the Turkish border.
It’s not the first time the Syrian government has accused its domestic enemies of using Damascus’s own unconventional arsenal against civilians. In March, Assad spokesmen contended that rebels had launched a chemical weapons attack against Khan al-Assal, a town in Aleppo Province, that killed 25 people.
Still, the timing of the regime’s latest claims should embarrass the White House. It gives the appearance that Obama and a ruling clique that has racked up a death toll approaching 100,000 are working two different ends of the same psychological operations campaign. Obama says he’s confused about Syria’s chemical weapons, and Assad lends a hand by sowing doubt about the author of the chemical attacks in Syria. In one regard, Obama and Assad really do share the same goal, albeit for different reasons—they both want to ensure that the United States sits on the sidelines of the Syrian civil war.
Syria analyst Tony Badran sees in all this a “cynical two-step,” in which Assad and Obama pick up on each other’s cues and send reinforcing messages. Writing in NOW Lebanon, Badran, a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, shows how since the beginning of the uprising in March 2011, the Syrian regime has furnished plentiful justifications for the United States not advancing its regional interests by helping to topple Iran’s chief Arab ally. Among other reasons, Badran writes, there is fear that the fall of the Damascus regime would endanger Israel, that it would threaten Syria’s minority communities, that it would empower Sunni radicals allied with al Qaeda, and that those same Sunni radicals might wind up seizing the regime’s large stockpile of chemical weapons.
At his press conference, Obama claimed that White House policy from the beginning of the uprising was to pressure Assad to step down. The truth is that Obama waited for five months before making any such statement and has sent mixed signals since then about whether he really wants Assad to go. The very red line Obama drew last August was just such a mixed signal. The White House warned Assad against using chemical weapons, but also insisted that he must keep them under his control. The problem of course is that Assad cannot control his chemical weapons arsenal unless he is firmly in control of his country. Assad could also see that the administration’s warnings were couched in heavily qualified language, which signaled to him that in comparison with a domestic uprising determined to kill him, the White House was a much less serious adversary that he could risk ignoring.
For instance, after a State Department cable showed that Assad might have used chemical weapons in December, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered what the administration doubtless considered a strong warning. “I am not going to telegraph in any specifics,” said Clinton, “what we would do in the event of credible evidence that the Assad regime has resorted to using chemical weapons against their own people.” The concept of “credible evidence,” it is now obvious, gives the White House wiggle room to do nothing. If Obama’s red line showed Assad that Americans were ambivalent about his fate, Clinton’s reaction told him they were bluffing.
The administration doubted that Assad would ever be “crazy” enough to use chemical weapons; after all, Obama had warned him of the consequences. Here the White House misunderstood power politics as it is played by someone fighting for his rule, his community, and his life. The Assad regime has lost control of much of Syria; in the event it has to abandon Damascus, plan B is to make a run for the Alawite homeland in Syria’s coastal mountains. The continued existence of the Alawite minority would then depend on its ability to defend that enclave from the Sunni Arab majority the rebels are drawn from. By using chemical weapons in at least a limited fashion, Assad could show that he would open the gates of hell should the rebels chase him all the way to his coastal redoubt. That would be not “crazy” from his perspective, but rational.
It is tempting to say that Assad has outmaneuvered Obama, but it may just be that the White House is incompetent. With the U.S. intelligence community last week joining their French, British, and Israeli counterparts in the conviction that Assad has employed chemical weapons, likely more than once, Obama has three choices. He can enforce his red line, swallow his words, or obfuscate the fact that he is swallowing his words. He has opted for the third.
What does it mean when Obama says that not only the United States but also the international community must be confident that the Assad regime used chemical weapons? Obama is, in effect, referring the issue to Russia, Syria’s ally on the U.N. Security Council. And Obama knows that Vladimir Putin is no more apt to dump Assad now than he was two years ago. He is taking his case to the international community on the sound assumption that Moscow will prevent action.
As for reports sourced to unnamed administration officials claiming that the White House plans to send arms to the rebels, these accounts have to be read within a larger narrative. Over the past year, similarly unnamed sources have repeatedly leaked to the press that the administration was either contemplating arms shipments to the rebels or already facilitating them. Yet Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey two weeks ago said the U.S. intelligence community still doesn’t really know who the rebels are. “If we could clearly identify the right people, I would support” arming them, said Dempsey. The unnamed sources are likely part of yet one more media blitz meant to throw critics of Obama’s Syria policy off balance.
For the other aspect of the White House’s approach to Syria has been to emphasize the difficulty of conducting any military action against Assad. Obama officials have once again renewed their warnings regarding Syria’s air defense system, which they say has been beefed up, making it a more formidable deterrent than ever against any no-fly zone that the administration might contemplate imposing. And yet despite Syria’s Russian-made, and maybe Russian-manned, air defenses, Israel struck targets across the Syrian border in February, and may have conducted another raid in late April.
Obama supporters reason that the president is taking his cues on Syria from the American people, who have no appetite for more military conflict in the Middle East. However, polls do not show a public that has become isolationist. Rather, they simply reflect the eternal good sense, common wisdom, and decency of the American people, who do not ever hunger for foreign entanglements. The administration’s vague talk of “military intervention” is meant to raise the stakes so high that any form of assistance to topple Assad is pre-emptively taken off the table.
No officials or lawmakers have ever called for U.S. forces on the ground in Syria—it is the White House that says in order to find and destroy Assad’s chemical weapons it would take more than 70,000 U.S. troops, a number intended to stop critics of the administration’s Syria policy dead in their tracks. What policymakers like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have called for is a no-fly zone and arming the rebels. Obama’s former CIA director David Petraeus drew up plans for getting weapons to the Free Syrian Army, which Leon Panetta and Hillary Clinton supported, as did Dempsey, before he changed his mind.
As Frederic Hof, the State Department’s former point man on Syria, wrote of Dempsey’s and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s testimony last month before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the central purpose “was to pour cold water on the idea of military intervention in Syria.”
Hof, who out of government has become one of the sharpest critics of the administration’s Syria policy, concludes that responsibility for confused policy rests with the White House. “A Pentagon reflecting confusion is a Pentagon in need of clear guidance from the commander in chief, U.S. President Barack Obama.”
“I’ve got to make sure I’ve got the facts,” Obama said last Wednesday. Over the last two years, the president’s Syria policy suggests that even when he has the facts, he doesn’t know what to do with them.
Lee Smith is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.