OBAMA'S MIDDLE EAST RECESSIONAL Part 2: Syria Policy, Up Close and Ugly

Let’s turn now to a few of the discrete decision points enumerated above, and try to make our way through the policy thickets. Despite the interconnectedness of much of the portfolio, we’re going to take the topics one by one, and do our knitting as the need arises.

First Syria. The best way to begin an understanding of U.S. policy toward Syria is to start with Libya. In March 2011, before the upheaval in Syria really amounted to anything, the President decided to throw in with Britain and France and start a war in Libya. Administration counsels were divided as the mayhem in Libya increased. Defense Secretary Bob Gates and all the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff opposed intervention. So did Vice President Biden and then-National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, who was “Biden’s guy.” So did lots of others outside the Administration, including the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and, for what little it’s worth, me.

The President seemed ambivalent, and so he laid down a series of strenuous conditions before he would countenance intervention—included Arab League support and a UNSC Article 7 resolution. But the President heeded the war party when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was won over to it, and, perhaps to his chagrin, all of his conditions were improbably met. While we’ll have to await candid memoirs to know for sure, my guess is that the President soon regretted his decision in light of the many dour and unintended consequences of the Libya intervention. Thanks to the allies’ failure, yet again, to plan for the post-combat phase of the war, some of these dour consequences have affected Libya (and led to the September 2012 Benghazi raid) while others have spread all the way to Mali, northern Nigeria and, arguably, Algeria.

So when his aides divided again over Syria a few months later, this time President Obama was determined to stay out. How much partisan political considerations came into play as the 2012 election approached is hard to say, but I think they probably mattered a lot (and I said so at the time). In any event, even without election politics affecting his judgment, U.S. passivity with respect to Syria was over-determined.

No doubt a good deal of analysis and spleen was laid before the President early on over Syria. My own view is that the ricochet of excessive caution from Libya was unfortunate. An early exercise of American leadership, in conjunction with Turkey and with NATO backing, could have staunched the violence before it metastasized, radicalized into sectarian camps and spread to other countries. U.S. boots on the ground and even early no-fly zones were not necessary to achieve this, and were not even desirable. There are means to exerting influence short of putting lots of U.S. troops in harm’s way: that’s why we have allies, intelligence operations, special forces and an array of dirty cyber-tricks. But the Administration discouraged the Turks, and the policy of passivity it adopted has turned out to be the most expensive policy of all.

In all fairness, Syria was always a hard problemIn all fairness, Syria was always a hard problem. Unlike Libya, which is an island from a military point of view and a small country in population terms, Syria is larger, harder to get at militarily and was known to have chemical and perhaps biological weapons stocks. Stand-off weapons like cruise missiles are not very good at cratering airfields or working in close coordination with rebel ground forces, and JCS Chairman Martin Dempsey spoke volubly about the need for 700 sorties to take down Syria’s air defense system before U.S. planes could operate overhead. That’s a big number, and was made to sound like it. Unlike Libya, however, some serious stakes attended the Syrian case, most of them linked to Iran. That’s what made it hard: the combination of real national interest stakes with no simple military options.

By the time the Administration got around to serious consideration of arming the rebels (it started by helping to coordinate third-party deals, like one from Croatia, and by getting the CIA to move some weapons stocks from Libya to the Syrian rebels), radical Sunni jihadis started showing up in large numbers, coalescing into Jabat al-Nusra. That made what was hard to start with even harder. It was not foolish to be concerned about U.S. weapons ending up in the wrong hands, and so non-lethal assistance became the preferred currency of aid. But concern need not be paralyzing, unless one wants to be paralyzed and have some reason to justify it.

Even the non-lethal aid was slow and small in coming, leading some observers to suspect that the Administration now wanted the Assad regime to survive (never mind that wayward “Assad must go” comment when it looked like it would happen anyway) as a counterbalance to Sunni jihadis. It has led some to claim further that passivity in Syria was a bargaining ploy meant for Iranian delectation. Maybe so. Now that we know the extent and the dates of secret contacts with Iran, run in part through Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman from his station at the UN in New York, it’s plausible to imagine American body language, if not also literal language, saying to the Iranians, in effect: Look, do what you want in Syria; we Americans are not determined to interfere with your interests in your own neighborhood. We don’t even have ambitions of regime change, and here the Administration’s early “engagement” policy, one that led to a standoffish U.S. attitude toward the surge of Green opposition in 2009, could have been put forward as evidence of non-aggressive intentions.

We will return to the Iran portfolio below, but it is important to understand that the Obama Administration, from the start, saw Syria as a lesser-included problem set within a policy focused on Iran. In this it was consistent with previous Administrations’ policies. The United States has never really had a policy as such toward Syria. Syria has always been an adjunct to more important policies—Arab-Israeli, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, and so on. In the past, this tendency had some very unfortunate consequences, even allowing the Syrian regime to kill Americans and otherwise attack U.S. interests—as in Iraq, for example—and really pay no price for it. This time around, it made at least a little more sense.

Of course, it can be argued that a more forceful U.S. policy toward the Assad regime would have gained more with respect to Iran, but that is not the approach the Obama Administration took. With Iraqi WMD programs no longer something the Iranians feared, a rather ironic turn of events given the President’s attitude toward the Iraq War, I suspect that the Administration view was that if we no longer appear to be a mortal threat to the Iranian regime, we will change the calculations in Tehran as to the costs and benefits of acquiring nuclear weapons. With sanctions we will raise their costs, and with diplomacy we will reduce the benefits of so risky a course—and then maybe we can bank that new Iranian calculation in a formal agreement. But let’s stick with Syria for now.

As U.S. passivity amid the Syrian civil war became protracted, the tide of battle turned in favor of the regime. Clearly, one of the reasons for initial U.S. passivity was the sense, confirmed by intelligence assessments, that the rebels would win with or without U.S. help. High-profile Sunni defections from the regime, like that of Manaf Tlas and others, were seen as evidence of this verdict. But as has long, long been the case in Syria, the Sunnis could not agree among themselves, and could not effectively cooperate to move their successful early effort to the regime-kill phase. Meanwhile, the Russians poured in arms and advisers, including advisers experienced fighting in Chechnya, and the Iranians via Hizballah and the Al-Quds brigades began to provide crucial help to Assad. The tide turned, and still the Obama Administration did nothing—except now the policy focus moved to Syrian chemical arms, and the White House drew the first of two “red lines” against chemical use.

My guess is that the President thought the first chemical weapons red line was a freebie—a way to look strong and engaged without actually risking anything. At that point no chemical weapons had been used in combat and there was no military reason to think they would be used. This was a fundamental misreading of the Alawi regime and its principals. The Administration should have paid more attention to how much skill the Syrians applied to humiliating Kofi Annan, and how much delight they took in doing it. Indeed, the Syrian regime might never have used chemicals had President Obama not warned them against it—in truth they did not really need to do so for strictly military reasons. Sensing Obama’s timidity about military engagement, the Syrian regime did what it does bestSensing Obama’s timidity about military engagement, the Syrian regime did what it does best: bullying, taunting, sparring psychologically with a less committed party. And by using chemicals without paying any price, they signaled to the rebels the highly credible taunt that the Americans will, in the end, leave you hung out to dry.

Then came the second chemical weapons red line, and we all remember what happened next. The Syrians, having shown only a very little chemical ankle before, testing what the American response would be (there was none), now used chemicals in a big way and for all to see. Some credulous Americans (James Fallows prominent among them) were sure the opposition did this stealthily in order to tar the regime, but this only exposed their ignorance and bad judgment. The Russians leaned into that lie, too, but that was to be expected of them as Assad’s lawyer.

Amid all this noxious virtual gas, the Administration strained to ignore evidence of repeated chemical use, lest it be forced to act. This was too embarrassing to persist for long, as evidence mounted from far and wide, coming even from French and British intelligence sources. Then the Administration suddenly got its back up and prepared to act, going so far as to send six cruise-missile armed ships into the Mediterranean. But then, just as suddenly, following the withdrawal of British support thanks to an unanticipated defeat in Parliament, Obama decided to be no less democratic than Britain and go to Congress for approval.

It’s still unclear whether Obama thought he would get approval, or if he knew he would not and then be able to blame Congress for his not doing something he never really wanted to do in the first place. Whatever the case, the episode evoked Administration comments about an attack with stand-off weapons being “incredibly small”—Secretary Kerry’s absurd and hurtful remark designed to appease Congressional skeptics worried about a slippery slope, and a remark the President felt obliged to contradict in public (“The U.S. military doesn’t do pinpricks”). But the deed was done; the Secretarial tongue had flapped, robbing a prospective attack of most of its impact before anyone had so much as caressed a trigger. In the end, as we know, the President did a bait-and-switch on himself, wrong-footing most of his own aides in the process, forgoing the use of force for a charade of a chemical weapons deal under Russian aegis.

There is nothing wrong with eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons in the face of a possibly crumbling Syrian state, but the deal does not eliminate all of Syria’s chemical weapons. It may end up eliminating only those the regime itself declared—and we have no reliable means of verifying the existence of what was not declared. Very likely, the most up-to-date and lethal munitions were not declared, leaving the so-called international community—mainly the United States, as it predictably turned out—to play the role of hazmat garbage collector, and to foot the bill to boot.

Now, the process of watching the President go from red line to red line to congressional ploy to Russian diplomatic life-preserver (an idea that was not as impromptu as the Administration made it seem at the time) was painful in the extreme. The new NSC Advisor, Susan Rice, was shown to be essentially incompetent as she presided over, or tried to chase, the most embarrassing excuse for a foreign policy decision process I have ever seen.

And what was the result? First, as many pointed out, the chemical weapons deal legitimated Assad and turned him into a partner for implementing the agreement—in direct contradiction to the “Assad must go” policy. The same contradiction also emerged in the delay in getting any of the chemicals out of the country. Why the delay? Well, Syria is a war zone, and the ground-transportation needed to be made safe before the chemicals could be brought to a port. Who made ground-transportation problematic? Our putative allies, the Free Syrian Army and its associates. So we were put in a position of complaining that our allies were causing a delay in implementing a deal we had made with their and our enemy. In other words, the side we wanted to win overall we now wanted to lose temporarily and locally so that a mostly decorative arms control agreement divorced entirely from the rest of the civil war could go forward. If that’s not proof of incoherent fecklessness in a policy, I don’t know what is.

However this looked here in the United States, the FSA interpreted it as a betrayal, and so did the Saudis. The Syrian regime accelerated its military actions in the wake of the chemical weapons deal; now that Assad was certain the United States would not use force, he went for broke in trying to smash the opposition. He focused on the connective tissue linking the Damascus area to Latakia province (where the battle for Al-Qusayr was critical—just look at a map), and further north on retaking Aleppo. He has since done well in both areas.

Why the hurry? Well, one reason is the Geneva II conference, slated back in May to begin tomorrow.

In June 2012 nine nations met in Geneva, some of the nine to try to work out a transition away from the Assad regime. Ah, but two of the nine wanted just the reverse: no agreement on any such thing. The Action Group meeting, as it was called, represented the last-ditch, tail-end part of the Kofi Annan UN-sponsored effort to stop the war. Like all the rest of the Annan effort, it failed, as everyone with eyes to see knew it would. Russia and China blocked any language that called for Assad’s ouster. The lowest-common-denominator agreed statement referred feebly to the need to create a transitional regime. It did not explicitly state that Assad could not be a part of that transitional regime. Indeed, it states that the transitional regime “could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent.”

The rest of the communiqué was pie-in-the-sky nonsense for the most part about ceasefires that never were or could have been, about democracy in a place that had never in four thousand years known it, and so on. It was not without its unintentionally humorous aspects, however. As innocents by the thousands were being butchered by their own government in Syria, the UN drafters took time to include a demand that women be represented in all phases of the transition. That’s nice.

In the run-up to Geneva II these past few days the wheels have progressively threatened to come completely off the bus. Both the fecklessness and the incoherence of the policy have been revealed anew for all to seeBoth the fecklessness and the incoherence of the policy have been revealed anew for all to see. Against the background of vicious internecine violence among rebel groups, and that the regime has taken advantage of in the Aleppo area especially, the U.S. government has been trying to get the FSA coalition to attend the Geneva II meeting. But there are 144 groups in the coalition, and the recent fighting against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has riven the coalition even further. Most opposition groups do not want to go if the terms of the conference do not stipulate that Assad must go, and that is why Kerry in recent days has reiterated that this is the U.S. understanding of the terms of the conference. But if any opposition groups go even as many do not, the net effect will be to further divide and hence weaken the military coalition on the ground in Syria.

How the State Department can read the June 30, 2012 communiqué this way I cannot understand. It is not the plain meaning of the text, and it is certainly not how the Syrian regime or the Russians read it. Kerry has lately accused the Syrians of “revisionism” in interpreting the June 30, 2012 document, but the accusation just as easily fits headed in the other direction. That is how UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon could at the last minute invite the Iranians, an invitation the U.S. government both opposed and sort of favored. After all, Kerry has been in recent weeks most solicitous of the Iranians being in the conference mix, but not as attendees since they supposedly did not endorse the U.S. understanding of the conditions for the conference. But the Iranians can endorse them as laid down on June 30, 2012 without prejudice in any way to Assad’s future. Moon saw that—he can read, after all. Hence the invitation.

This infuriated Kerry. No U.S. Secretary of State enjoys having his knees cut out from under him by the likes of any UN type, especially done without warning at a particularly sensitive moment. So the State Department demanded that Moon rescind his invitation to Iran, even though it was inviting U.S. body language toward Iran in the first place that probably convinced Moon to issue the invitation. Moon complied, quickly but grudgingly. Now some representation from the FSA might show up, and the rescinding saves the U.S. government from having to withdraw from its own sponsored conference, an event into which we have diligently stuffed so much futile, fake and frothy hope in recent weeks.

But maybe that would have been best. Given the state of the battlefield and the unwillingness of the United States to do anything even remotely effectual about it, this conference cannot possibly achieve what the Administration hopes for it. The antagonists insist on a zero-sum attitude, and the conference sponsors do not agree on first principles as regards to purpose. That was clear already many weeks ago. U.S. failure will thus be seen throughout the region as a confirmation of U.S. impotence, and as a victory for Assad, the Iranians, the Russians and utterly ruthless brutality against civilian populations. Why we should ever have been willing to be an accomplice to that I swear I cannot understand.

The plaint that this round of Geneva diplomacy doesn’t stand a great chance of success, “but it’s the only thing we have left to try”—and words to that effect have actually been uttered in public by U.S. officials—just shows once again that, yes, diplomacy can indeed be harmful if leaders fail to grasp that force and diplomacy are complements, not opposites. Bleatings that this is only the beginning of a long process, or that the conference will encourage defections from the regime, or that an alternative vision to war is itself useful amount to so much mental rubbish. You cannot stop a full-fledged civil war with strongly worded Hallmark cards and silly pablum about “getting to yes.” All this conference has done, is doing and will do is end up getting more people killed as all sides jockey for battlefield advantage.

Want another example of how harmless one-eyed diplomacy can be? In the run-up to Geneva II the United States has formally joined with Russia in trying to persuade both sides to declare pre-conference ceasefires as a means to ultimately end the war. But we have indisputable evidence from the ground that what the Syrian regime is offering are not local ceasefires, but terms of surrender. The regime is offering dribs and drabs of food and medicine to besieged civilians in return for allowing the Syria flag to fly over this or that neighborhood, but as soon as regime operatives get inside they are demanding information about rebel fighters’ whereabouts, they are arresting some people, and they are simply shooting others who try to walk away. This is a Chechnya-style “ceasefire.” Can John Kerry possibly not know this? If he does know it, how can he encourage it? Is he so cynical that knowingly betraying U.S. allies is a price he’s eager to pay to end the war?

However exactly it turns out, the spectacle of Geneva II is already a disgrace to the great tradition of U.S. statecraft. Would that its dark shadow remain confined to the Middle East, but one has to wonder what, say, Japanese decision-makers are thinking privately these days. As to Kerry, all he is saying, apparently, is give appeasement a chance.