What Obama Aides Say About Syria

Writing in The New Yorker, Dexter Filkins runs through the Obama administration’s reluctance to further intervene in Syria. There are many cons White House officials articulate, but here’s two that stood out to me.

Unintended Consequences

Filkins quotes a senior White House official as being mindful of the blowback experienced when the US armed and trained jihadists in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and all of the consequences of that, including the longest war in America’s history:

Still, Obama has said that he is worried that arming the rebels will have unintended consequences: a genocide against the Alawites; weapons falling into the hands of Islamist extremists, as happened when the U.S. armed Afghan jihadis in the nineteen-eighties; or a rapid political collapse that demolishes the state’s institutions. “If we’re not careful about who gets weapons, we’ll be cleaning that up for years,’’ the senior White House official told me. “We saw that movie in Afghanistan.”

Ineffective Options

As I’ve argued here many times – indeed, as top military officials at the Defense Department have argued – taking military action is likely to worsen the humanitarian situation.

Another concern is that, as in Libya, grounding enemy planes and helicopters will not end the majority of civilian deaths; artillery and Scud missiles appear to be killing far more people than planes are. “In Syria, the regime-controlled areas are interspersed with the rebel-controlled areas, so a no-fly zone is not going to stop the killing,’’ [Benjamin] Rhodes [Obama’s deputy national-security adviser] said. “Once the violence became sectarian, you can’t cover every neighborhood from the air.” In this view, a no-fly zone would be only the beginning of U.S. involvement. “What happens when the rebels keep losing?’’ a senior defense official told me. “What happens when civilians keep getting killed? They will ask us to do more. And we’ll already be in. We will be invested in an outcome. Pretty soon, we’ll be striking ground targets.”

…“We do not want to see the Syrian government disappear,’’ [Robert] Ford [U.S. Ambassador to Syria] said. It “will create more refugee flows; it will help the extremists…That is our biggest concern in terms of maintaining unity and keeping Syria from being an operating base for terrorist extremists.”

Obama wants to see Assad go, but he is terrified that, if it happens too fast, a vacuum could open up—like the one in Baghdad in 2003—and be filled by Islamist extremists.

Still, Obama’s limited interventionism in Syria continues to worsen the situation in a direction contrary to the above stated concerns. Filkins:

A large proportion of the rebels’ matériel is provided by Qatar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia: rockets, guns, and millions of rounds of ammunition, often bought in Croatia and shipped to rebel bases on the Turkish and Jordanian borders. At a congressional hearing in April, Secretary of State John Kerry said that the United States was not arming the rebels but was “coördinating very, very closely with those who are.” Officials in Washington told me that they believe the weapons have begun to tilt the balance in favor of the rebels.

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