Faced with the growing prospect of a failed Syria policy staining its foreign policy legacy, the Obama administration is discussing new options for addressing a nearly three-year-old civil war that is shaking up the Middle East order.
With some senior Pentagon and intelligence officials warning that an ungoverned Syria increasingly threatens American national security interests, the administration is discussing a range of steps that might alter the conflict. In virtually all ways – from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power to the strength of Al Qaeda-linked groups fighting in Syria – the civil war appears to be going in the wrong direction.
The Al Qaeda threat has reached such a point, in fact, that it is likely to prompt the use of force where other issues, including chemical weapons, have not, some analysts say.
In the view of some – in particular hawks in Congress who have long pressed for a more muscular policy – recent hints from administration officials suggest President Obama and his senior aides are acknowledging that their Syria policy has failed, and are preparing to move more aggressively to sway the war’s outcome.
But for some administration officials and Obama backers in Congress, the White House is simply weighing options and considering policy adjustments – though no major shifts – to deliver better results.
Weighing particularly heavily on the administration is Syria’s humanitarian crisis – and recognition that Mr. Assad, in the administration’s own words, is getting away with a policy of “submit or starve” toward his own people.
The latest surge in attention to Mr. Obama’s Syria policy started with a report from two prominent Senate hawks – Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina – that Secretary of State John Kerry had acknowledged to more than a dozen members of Congress behind closed doors that the administration’s Syria policy is a failure.
Among the remedies Mr. Kerry now supports for righting the ship, the two senators quoted their former colleague as saying, is providing arms to Syria’s moderate rebels.
“Kerry acknowledged that … we are at a point now where we are going to have to change our strategy,” Senator Graham told journalists after Kerry’s meeting with the lawmakers on the sidelines of the weekend Munich Security Conference.
Senator McCain, who led a bipartisan congressional delegation to the annual Munich conference, said the views Kerry offered in the briefing reflected the more robust approach to Syria that he believes Kerry has long supported.
“This is not surprising because all along John has wanted more vigorous action,” McCain said.
Kerry has not commented on the reports out of Munich, but his spokeswoman has. Yes, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters Monday, “We continue to consider what more we can do” in Syria. “But that is not a change in strategy,” she added.
One of the developments that prompted Kerry’s worried assessment of Syria is how Assad has put the brakes on his delivery of Syria’s chemical weapons for disposal, Ms. Psaki said.
As for the issue of providing broader lethal assistance to the rebels – the CIA has made limited arms available to a small number of groups – she said the issue was discussed after it was raised by members of Congress. “At no point did he raise it, did he commit to it, did he say that it was a process being worked on,” she said. “And so that’s a mischaracterization of what was said.”
The different versions coming out of just what Kerry said in Munich – some Democratic senators who attended the meeting issued a statement saying they did not hear Kerry speak of a “failing” Syria policy or of “new lethal assistance” for the rebels – may simply reflect the debate and disagreements inside the administration, some administration observers say.
“I think what we’re seeing now is a lot of debate, and a lot of disagreement out of the State Department” and other departments “that have been arguing for a different kind of policy for a long time,” says Stephen Hadley, who was national security adviser to President George W. Bush. “We’ll see if there is an alignment in the administration for a new policy,” added Mr. Hadley, who spoke Tuesday at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP).
Whatever was said at Kerry’s briefing, the administration is clearly searching for ways to address a number of concerns that are only getting worse as the Syrian conflict drags on.
One is the humanitarian crisis. The Assad regime’s refusal to budge on allowing relief deliveries into besieged cities and neighborhoods is pushing the administration to at least consider more forceful means of getting aid in. One option that has laid dormant for months but which is being talked about again is United Nations Security Council action to force Assad to accept humanitarian corridors.
Another mounting concern is the growing strength of Al Qaeda-affiliated and other Islamist extremist groups who could use power vacuums in parts of Syrian territory to create safe havens from which to launch attacks against the US and elsewhere in the West.
In testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee last week, James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, said that at least one Al Qaeda-affiliated group in Syria, al-Nusrah Front, “does have aspirations for attacks on the [American] homeland.” Also “very very worrisome,” he added, is the growing number of foreign fighters in Syria – particularly Europeans – who could become hardened terrorists and then take their violent aims home.
Kerry reportedly told the members of Congress he briefed that he and the Obama administration are well aware of the extremist threat Syria poses – and not just inside Syria.
The rise of Al Qaeda affiliates is just one of the challenges Syria poses, but it may be the one that finally prompts Obama to drop his strong reluctance to involve the US more deeply, some foreign policy analysts say.
The same kind of terrorists Obama has launched a campaign of drone strikes against in Yemen are now setting up shop in parts of Syria, notes Dennis Ross, a distinguished fellow at WINEP who spent three years in the Obama administration as a special adviser on Middle East affairs.
“That means we’re going to have to do more in Syria than we are now,” Ambassador Ross says.
Obama has looked at Syria “all along as a problem with very few good options,” he says. But he adds that what the administration is hearing now from its allies in the region is that the American decision to stay out of a bad situation has only made most matters worse.
“The administration up to now has been very reluctant to get sucked into Syria,” Ross says. “But with the trends we see in Syria today, we’re going to get sucked in anyway.”