Obama’s Syria policy is fundamentally one of contradictions. Back in 2011, the president called for Bashar al-Assad to step down and proceeded to gradually support the armed rebellion. As Joshua Landis, professor at the University of Oklahoma and an expert on Syria, wrote back at the time, “Let’s be clear: Washington is pursuing regime change by civil war in Syria.”
At the same time, the Obama administration did not welcome the fall of the regime in Damascus. As the State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said back in January, even as the U.S. supports the Syrian opposition on the margins, it is of utmost importance to “maintain the functions of the state,” so as to avoid a power vacuum that the al-Qaeda-linked jihadists that make up the majority of the rebels could take advantage of. As Phil Giraldi, former CIA intelligence officer and Antiwar.com columnist, told me back in March, “Obama has come around to the view that regime change is more fraught with dangers than letting Assad remain.”
Instead of moving initially to directly arm the rebels, the Obama administration stalled for two years and made policy moves like designating the al-Qaeda in Iraq offshoot in Syria a terrorist organization and pressuring Saudi Arabia not to send heavier arms like anti-aircraft weapons. Back in March, the White House directed the CIA to increase its cooperation and backing of Iraqi state militias to fight al-Qaeda affiliates there and cut off the flow of fighters pouring into Syria. As The Nation‘s Robert Dreyfuss put it, “We’re backing the same guys in Syria that we’re fighting in Iraq.” Then in May it was revealed that U.S. operatives in Jordan advised small groups of moderate rebels with the explicit requirement that their trainees fight the al-Qaeda-linked rebels.
So while Obama’s policy, at least as stated, was the fall of the Assad regime, he also tried to prevent its collapse. And even as U.S. policy was to support – and, indeed, now to arm – the rebels, it was also to divide and conquer the opposition and fight al-Qaeda’s rise in Syria.
The Wall Street Journal reported this month that the CIA’s second-in-command, Michael Morrell, said in an interview that the top threat to U.S. security is “the risk is that the Syrian government, which possesses chemical and other advanced weapons, collapses and the country becomes al Qaeda’s new haven.” Former CIA analyst Paul Pillar echoed the sentiment: “In the short term probably the best outcome in that respect would be prompt re-establishment of control by the Assad regime.”
Mind you, that doesn’t mean Washington should start directly supporting Assad. I don’t think that, and neither, presumably, do these CIA guys. The Obama administration has shown, in its words and its reluctance to fully commit to a proxy war against Assad, that it understands the concern associated with Assad’s fall. But the president has still bowed to pressure from the most superficially informed that we “do something” to stop the caricatured formulation of this civil war that it is a ruthless dictator slaughtering his own people and nothing more.
But he hasn’t bowed too much. Obama has repeatedly sent out his officials, most notably Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to outline the dangers of direct military action. “We have learned from the past 10 years,” Dempsey said last month, “that it is not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consideration of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state. We must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action. Should the regime’s institutions collapse in the absence of a viable opposition, we could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control.”
It seems a confused, panicky approach. The administration is terrified of appearing to not interfere, but it knows too strong a policy for or against either side would make things immeasurably worse.