What's Obama's strategy for Syria?

Go figure.

By , Staff writer

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    President Barack Obama listens to French President Francois Hollande during the G-8 summit at the Lough Erne golf resort in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, Tuesday, June 18. As Obama decided to arm Syria's rebels earlier this week, does he have a strategic objective in mind?
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President Barack Obama decided to arm Syria's rebels earlier this week. That sound you are now hearing? Raspberries, both from people who want the US government to throw its full weight behind a rebel victory, and from those who think the US should wait out the Syrian civil war on the sidelines.

Obama has pulled the classic maneuver of a compromise that satisfies no one and irritates everyone. But the decision, and the points of agreement from various analysts who disagree sharply about what the US should be doing, is particularly troubling in what it says about the lack of strategic care going into all of this (one commentator on twitter said it was looking like an "etch-a-sketch intervention.")

Does President Obama have a strategic objective in mind? He hasn't outlined one in public yet, and it's hard to divine one amid the morass of unnamed sources quoted in DC press reporting on the decision.

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Sure, the US would like a stable, democratic Syria that's friendly to America and Israel, hostile to Sunni jihadis and the Shiite movement Hezbollah, and distant from Iran. Obama says he'd like to see a negotiated, political transition - notwithstanding both sides are committed to victory and nothing but victory. But that is just an empty aspiration if there isn't a meaningful road-map for getting from point A to point Z. That's not to say the US must have an answer to this question, or even that there's a plausible one to be found. Sometimes the best you can hope for is to ride the tiger and limit the fallout for your own interests.

But best practice in those kind of situations is to not get involved at all. Simply pouring more weapons into the situation and hoping for the best isn't a smart option. And if the Obama administration has cracked the code, or thinks it has, it's time it starts sharing that with the American public before the US risks getting dragged into another Middle Eastern war. 

What's more, the limited amount of support currently on offer is highly unlikely to lead to anything resembling a decisive advantage for the rebellion writ large, particularly if the US is successful in keeping the new weapons out of the hands of jihadi groups like Jabhat al-Nusra - among the most effective fighters on the opposition side.

Criticism of Obama's decision have been pointed - both from people who want a robust US effort to help the rebels win, and from those who think the US should steer clear entirely. Shadi Hamid is in the former camp, and he writes that

What makes Obama's decision so unsatisfying -- and even infuriating -- to both sides is that even he seems to acknowledge this. As the New York Times reports, "Mr. Obama expressed no confidence it would change the outcome, but privately expressed hope it might buy time to bring about a negotiated settlement."

To some extent like the 2010 Afghanistan "surge," this is a tactical move that seems almost entirely detached from any clear, long-term strategy. A source of constant and sometimes Kafkaesque debate among interpreters of Obama's Syria policy is figuring out what exactly the policy is in the first place. Secretary of State John Kerry has been promoting the Geneva II peace conference, but his explanations of US goals have tended to confuse. For example, there is this: "The goal of Geneva II is to implement Geneva I." But no one is quite sure what the goals of Geneva I were, except perhaps to "lay the groundwork" for Geneva II.

George Washington University's Marc Lynch, an occasional adviser to the administration on Middle East foreign policy who would like to see the US limit it's military involvement in the war, writes the decision to send weapons is probably Obama's "worst foreign policy decision since taking office."

Nobody in the administration seems to have any illusions that arming the rebels is likely to work. The argument over arming the FSA has been raging for well over a year, driven by the horrific levels of death and devastation, fears of regional destabilization, the inadequacy of existing policies, concerns about credibility over the ill-conceived chemical weapons red line, and a relentless campaign for intervention led by hawkish media, think tanks, Congress, and some European and regional allies.

... Obama's move is likely meant as a way to "do something," and perhaps to give Secretary John Kerry something to work with diplomatically on the way to Geneva II, while deflecting pressure for more aggressive steps. The logic behind the steps has been thoroughly aired by now. The dominant idea is that these arms will help to pressure Assad to the bargaining table, strengthen the "moderate" groups within the opposition while marginalizing the jihadists in the rebellion's ranks, and assert stronger U.S. leadership over the international and regional proxy war. Much of it sounds like magical thinking.

Earlier this week columnist Jeffrey Goldberg reported that Gen. Martin Dempsey dressed down Secretary Kerry over the apparent absence of clear objectives and the danger of directly attacking the Syrian government. Mr. Goldberg cites this only to "several sources" with no further identification, so the usual caveats apply as to the motives and honesty of the anonymous. But if true, it's a fascinating window into the debate between the professional soldiers and civilian leaders in the Obama administration.

At a principals meeting in the White House situation room, Secretary of State John Kerry began arguing, vociferously, for immediate U.S. airstrikes against airfields under the control of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime -- specifically, those fields it has used to launch chemical weapons raids against rebel forces.

It was at this point that the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the usually mild-mannered Army General Martin Dempsey, spoke up, loudly. According to several sources, Dempsey threw a series of brushback pitches at Kerry, demanding to know just exactly what the post-strike plan would be and pointing out that the State Department didn’t fully grasp the complexity of such an operation.

Dempsey informed Kerry that the Air Force could not simply drop a few bombs, or fire a few missiles, at targets inside Syria: To be safe, the U.S. would have to neutralize Syria’s integrated air-defense system, an operation that would require 700 or more sorties. At a time when the U.S. military is exhausted, and when sequestration is ripping into the Pentagon budget, Dempsey is said to have argued that a demand by the State Department for precipitous military action in a murky civil war wasn’t welcome.

... Dempsey was adamant: Without much of an entrance strategy, without anything resembling an exit strategy, and without even a clear-eyed understanding of the consequences of an American airstrike, the Pentagon would be extremely reluctant to get behind Kerry’s plan.

The talk of many of the purveyors of conventional DC wisdom about all this is instructive in its fundamental incoherence. Consider the musings of David Ignatius yesterday about the White House's plans.

In Ignatius' estimation "the reality is that, despite his decision last week to arm the opposition there, Obama is still playing for a negotiated diplomatic transition" and that "Obama wants to bolster moderate opposition forces under Gen. Salim Idriss until they’re strong enough to negotiate a transitional government. He wants to counter recent offensives by Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed forces aiding President Bashar al-Assad. And he wants to keep Arab nations from bolting the U.S.-led coalition backing Idriss and instead arming radical jihadists."

It's hard to know where to start with the above. Some Arab nations already are arming jihadis, and the efforts to arm the "nice" rebels exclusively haven't worked, with strong evidence that weapons that started to flow through Jordan at the end of last year quickly ended up in the hands of jihadi fighters, who have been an enormous battlefield asset to the uprising.

Strong enough to "negotiate a transitional government?" That in reality would be "strong enough to win." Assad and his supporters view the fight as one for existence and survival, have the backing of Iran and Russia, and see little upside in negotiating a "transition" that ends up with them in exile or swinging from the gallows. If Assad doesn't fear imminent defeat, he isn't going to negotiate his exit. And rebel commanders, both under the banner of the Free Syrian Army and of the jihadis, have been united in demanding Assad's removal from power as a precondition for any meaningful peace talks.

Finally, it's unclear what the sending of light weapons - Obama has been frustratingly vague on what exactly he's willing to give them, and it will take a while to set up supply routes and vetting procedures - will do to substantially change the situation. The Syrian army is professional and well-equipped; Hezbollah is one of the most capable fighting forces in the region. Without anti-tank weapons and anti-aircraft weapons - and professional training in their use - it's hard to see extra bullets or rifles making much of a difference beyond, perhaps, prolonging the agony.

Meanwhile, Russia looks on. President Vladimir Putin drew his own red line this week over any kind of no-fly or no-drive zone over Syria. His country continues to hold back on a promised delivery of the advanced S-300 anti-aircraft system to Assad that has alarmed Israel and the US. The greater the US slips towards a policy of regime change, the more likely he is to deliver those and perhaps other weapons.

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