A long New York Times story today details the quarrels and vicissitudes that have marked the Obama White House’s Syria policy over the last two and a half years. Some senior officials wanted to arm the rebels to topple Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, while others pushed back.
As has been previously reported, former CIA director David Petraeus was in the first camp, as was former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey. Samantha Power, at the time on Obama’s NSC staff and now ambassador to the U.N., also advocated arming the rebels.
“Denis,” Power is reported to have said to current White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, “if you had met the rebels as frequently as I have, you would be as passionate as I am.”
“Samantha,” McDonough replied, “we’ll just have to agree to disagree.”
Obama’s past and present national security advisers, Tom Donilon and Susan Rice were once against arming the Free Syrian Army and eventually switched sides, joining Clinton’s replacement John Kerry as well as the man who succeeded Petraeus at the CIA, Michael J. Morrell who, according to the Times, “renewed his predecessor’s pitch to begin arming the rebels.”
In June after the administration confirmed reports that Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons, the White House hinted, without any official announcement, that it would enforce Obama’s redline by sending lethal aid, even as it is unclear whether weapons were ever actually sent.
McDonough it seems is the one senior official who never thought it was a good idea to arm the rebels. According to the Times, he believed “that the status quo in Syria could keep Iran pinned down for years. In later discussions, he also suggested that a fight in Syria between Hezbollah and Al Qaeda would work to America’s advantage.”
Besides McDonough, the other constant in the administration’s opaque and incoherent policy is a detached and disinterested president. During senior staff meetings to discuss Syria, according to the Times, Obama “often appeared impatient or disengaged while listening to the debate, sometimes scrolling through messages on his BlackBerry or slouching and chewing gum.”
Obama was apparently never interested in arming the rebels and now, according to a report yesterday from the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet, the administration has cut off its nonlethal assistance to rebel groups in northern Syria. The White House blames al Qaeda groups for blocking dispersal of the aid but, according to Hurriyet’s Washington correspondent Tolga Tanis, the decision is another part of the administration’s “disengagement” from the Syrian conflict. Perhaps with the prospect of cutting a deal with Iran, Obama is loath to upset Tehran by committing any resources to toppling an ally in whom they’ve invested money, manpower and weapons.
When the administration signed on to the Russian initiative to strip Syrian president Bashar al-Assad of his chemical weapons, Obama effectively partnered with Assad and Vladimir Putin, which invariably precluded sending the rebels lethal aid. Now Obama has cut off nonlethal assistance as well, again dividing the administration, including one senior CIA official, who, according to Tanis, resigned in protest in September. Perhaps it was Morrell who, as he explained to the Wall Street Journal last month, sees Syria as the greatest threat to U.S. national security. In any case, the president he served doesn’t share that assessment.