It’s still unclear whether chemical weapons were used earlier this week in attacks in Syria's Aleppo province, and if so who’s responsible—Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s troops or rebel forces. The U.N. is opening an investigation, as is the White House.
Syrian state media first reported on Tuesday that it was the anti-Assad rebels who launched an attack that, according to Syria’s information minister, killed 25 and injured 86. Russia, an Assad ally, backed the regime’s account, even as the rebels claimed it was the regime that was responsible for the attack. Israeli officials initially believed that the regime employed its unconventional arsenal—Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said Israel was “absolutely sure” of it—but now other Israeli officials seem to be walking back that assessment, uncertain that chemical weapons were used. Rep. Mike Rogers and Sen. Diane Feinstein said that, based on intelligence briefings, there was a “high probability” Assad used chemical weapons. However, the White House says it sees no proof yet. As Robert Ford, the American ambassador to Syria though no longer based in Damascus, explained: “So far, we have no evidence which substantiates the reports that chemical weapons were used. . . . But I want to underline that we are looking very carefully at these reports.”
Of course, the White House is largely responsible for the confusion. In July the Assad regime explained that it would never use its chemical weapons arsenal against its own citizens, but only “in case of external aggression.” Since Assad has customarily described the opposition as “foreign-backed terrorists,” he was actually threatening to turn those arms on his own people. When Obama announced in August that the use of chemical weapons “would change [his] calculations” regarding actions he might take to facilitate Assad’s downfall, he effectively told Assad that, short of using chemical weapons, the Syrian president was free to dispatch with his enemies in any way he saw fit. Second, by making the use of chemical weapons a central issue, the administration didn’t draw a redline but rather designed a mousetrap in which it has now ensnared itself.
Paradoxically, Obama’s warning enhanced Assad’s prestige even as the Syrian leader was starting to lose large parts of the territory that he nominally governs from Damascus. Not only did the White House tell Assad not to use his unconventional arsenal, but also that it expected him to control it. When the White House reached out to Assad in December and allegedly prevented him from launching a chemical weapons attack, it showed that it believes Assad will remain an indispensable interlocutor as long as he has chemical weapons at his disposal. Even as the administration has repeatedly said that Assad has lost “legitimacy,” because it has expressed its fears of chemical weapons so publicly, it has effectively legitimized him as an interlocutor simply because he has taken his country hostage.
Moreover, the administration left itself open to the simplest of psychological warfare campaigns. Because it is in the interest of the rebels to win Washington over to its side, Assad would need only to claim it was they who had used chemical weapons and blamed the regime for it in order to draw in the United States. Given the nature of chemical weapons and the fact that there is very little objective media working inside Syria at present, it was always going to be difficult, as we see now, to prove that they were used, or who used them. With Assad able to sow confusion at whim, the result is that the administration has shown not resolve or confidence with its Syria policy, but incompetence and incoherence.
Sen. Carl Levin, who sent a letter to the White House with Sen. John McCain calling for air strikes on Syria and a no-fly zone, is among the policymakers (along with Reps. Mike Rogers, Elliot Engel and Brad Sherman who have introduced the Free Syria Act of 2013 ) to call for the White House to take a more active position in fulfilling the policy that Obama articulated in August 2011—Assad’s removal. Other American officials have called for arming the rebels, including Obama’s former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former CIA Director David Petraeus, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey. They seem to believ, in the words of Marine Gen. James Mattis, that Assad’s ouster “would be biggest strategic setback for Iran in 25 years."
With so many now arguing for a forward-leaning Syria policy, is it possible that the president alone is incapable of seeing the matter in strategic terms? Only Obama doesn’t understand how Assad’s fall would constitute a major blow to Iran and its IRGC arm in Lebanon, Hezbollah? The other, and perhaps more likely, possibility is that Obama does see it strategically. Like everyone else, he sees it in terms of the larger game, where, for instance, because Syria and Iran are tied at the hip, Tehran keeps pouring in Quds Force troops as well as Hezbollah fighters to spell and support Assad’s depleted armed forces and overtaxed shabiha militiamen. But if Obama does see it like everyone else then why isn’t the White House investing resources to ensure that Assad is toppled?
Perhaps it’s because, as some former administration officials have let on, Obama wants to keep U.S. forces in reserve in the event they are needed if he decides to attack Iran. When it comes time for the big hunt, as some former Obama aides have put it, we don’t want the dogs distracted chasing squirrels. The problem with this interpretation is that no one is calling for a large commitment of American forces, but rather to aid the rebels. How that would constitute taking our eye off the ball regarding Iran is unclear.
No, if Obama does see the Syrian conflict strategically, perhaps the reason he is not taking a more active position is because he fears that it will anger Iran. It doesn’t matter whether the administration’s negotiating team really believes there’s a deal to be had with Iran, or if Obama simply wants to keep the Iranians at the table for appearance’s sake, it seems he doesn’t want to get the Iranians mad by backing Assad’s adversaries.
Obama came to office in the belief that there was a deal to be had with Iran. There is nothing to indicate he’s changed his mind—even as Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei says he is not optimistic. “Our past experiences show that talks for the American officials do not mean for us to sit down and reach a logical solution,” Khamenei said recently. “What they mean by talks is that we sit down and talk until Iran accepts their viewpoint.”
Obama’s 2008 campaign promise that he was singularly capable of engaging the Iranians was self-refuting: It only placed him firmly within a presidential pattern stretching back to 1979. Since the dawn of the Islamic revolution, every administration, Democratic and Republican, has not only sought to engage Tehran, but also—by refusing to stand up to Khomeini, Khamenei and the IRGC, as they have killed Americans and our allies across the world—has effectively appeased the clerical regime.
If the Obama White House is capable of sympathizing with Iranian interests, it has failed to take into consideration our own interests in Syria. The conflict is spreading and afflicting American allies bordering on Syria—Israel, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, where earlier this week the Syrian air force bombed a town in the Bekaa valley. If the administration fears angering the Iranians by backing Assad’s enemies, then shouldn’t we be angry with Iran for backing Assad to the hilt? If the Iranians are playing to win in Syria, then what kind of deal can Obama hope to get at the negotiating table?