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Unfixable: How Obama lost Syria

Zackary Canepari/Vox

July 18, 2012, almost a year to the day into Syria's civil war, was also the day when it looked closest to ending. The rebels, at that point still mostly local volunteers and defected Syrian soldiers, had pushed into the capital city of Damascus. Amateur videos showed them storming a military base as they spread through surrounding suburbs.

In the city's heart, a suicide bomber infiltrated a meeting of top regime officials, killing the defense minister, a top general, and the powerful brother-in-law of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. Even Sergei Lavrov, the foreign minister of Russia, then Assad's most important ally, acknowledged that "the battle for the capital, the decisive fight" was underway.

Thousands of miles away, in Washington, DC, another battle was raging: a months-long struggle within the Obama administration over what action the United States should take, if any, to steer the course of a war that was quickly becoming a humanitarian catastrophe.

Some in the administration, wary of another intervention after the US-led air campaign in Libya, opposed getting involved. Others feared that the war would only get worse, that if the US did not act now then it would be forced to act later when the war would be even more chaotic and conditions even less favorable.

In both Damascus and Washington, both battles quickly turned to stalemates. Now, three and a half years later, Assad is still in power but has lost most of his country to rebels and to ISIS, who also fight one another, and the war has so spiraled out of control that the Obama administration, despite earlier promises to the contrary, has announced it will send a small number of US special forces as advisers into Syria.

President Obama, speaking in October to 60 Minutes, made clear that he had little hope of fixing Syria.

"What we have not been able to do so far, and I'm the first to acknowledge this, is to change the dynamic inside of Syria," he said. "The goal here has been to find a way in which we can help moderate opposition on the ground, but we've never been under any illusion that militarily we ourselves can solve the problem inside of Syria."

But the administration had not always taken this view. The administration's thinking on Syria, as chronicled by multiple reports on its internal battles and by Obama himself, has shifted dramatically since it first began considering intervention in early 2012. Had it arrived at a different conclusion in those first debates of 2012, or had it reached its present decision to intervene earlier in the war, US policy toward Syria, and perhaps Syria itself, might have ended up differently.

Ironically, the Obama administration opposed action most forcefully when action would have been most productive, partly out of choice and partly out of bureaucratic disorganization. It has been drawn into intervening only now, years later, at a point when the conflict has become almost certainly beyond America's ability to solve.

How Obama tied his own hands on Syria

CIA Director David Petraeus speaks in the Situation Room Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images

CIA Director David Petraeus speaks in the Situation Room. (Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images)

In the early spring of 2012, just a few months after Syria's peaceful uprising had become a bloody civil war, the White House held a series of meeting with Pentagon planners to ask what the US could do. They went through several options, but came up empty-handed.

"Nobody could figure out what to do," a senior Pentagon official told the Wall Street Journal's Adam Entous, who reported on the meetings.

As the death toll in Syria grew from thousands to tens of thousands, and as Assad committed ever more brazen atrocities, the Obama administration returned to the issue again and again. But senior officials deadlocked on whether the US should act, with Cabinet officials digging in on either side. The debates raged throughout the summer and into the fall.

The administration split over whether to arm Syria's rebels to fight against Assad. At that point, moderates were far more prevalent among the opposition, and ISIS did not yet exist. The faction in favor, led by CIA Director David Petraeus and supported by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, argued that they should nudge out Assad. It was better to exert some influence or indirect control over the situation while they still could, before it veered out of control.

Some senior officials, such as then-UN Ambassador Susan Rice, argued against arming the rebels out of fear that this would mire the US in a costly and open-ended conflict. But ironically, the view that prevailed was not that arming them was dangerous, but that it would be unnecessary. For much of 2012, the administration believed Assad was about to fall on his own.

A key moment came when Denis McDonough, then the deputy national security adviser and long a powerful White House player with the president's ear, took charge of the administration's committee on Syria policy. He limited it mostly to planning for after Assad's fall.

Here is Entous's 2013 report on the meetings:

"It was clear to all participants that this was what the White House wanted, as opposed to really focusing on key questions of how do you get to the post-Assad period," one participant said.

Administration officials said one of the reasons the committee was told to focus on post-Assad planning was because intelligence at the time created "a sense" in the White House that Mr. Assad could be killed by rebels or his own people, eliminating the need for riskier measures to support the rebel campaign.

Because McDonough and others believed Assad would fall on his own, there was no need to consider taking risks to help nudge him out. In other words, the administration's decision was not that they opposed toppling Assad, merely that it would happen without their help.

This opinion was widely held among many observers, including in the intelligence services and, at one point, even Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who hinted that Moscow feared Assad's imminent downfall. But this view allowed US policy on Syria to drift throughout much of 2012, perhaps the one period of time when the US might have successfully intervened.

Also around this time, Russia's ambassador to the UN floated a plan for Moscow to help remove Assad. It is unclear whether the proposal was earnest or whether Russia even had the ability to carry it out — Russian influence in Syria is far more limited than many Americans believe. Some observers believe Moscow only floated the plan because it believed Assad was about to fall anyway, so Russia might as well get credit for it. Still, it is telling that Western powers, believing Assad was about to fall, gave it little mind.

Administration policy during this period drifted for another reason: bureaucratic bottlenecks. As David Rohde and Warren Strobel chronicled in a lengthy Reuters investigation of the administration's Syria debate, it stalled repeatedly, not solely because the key players opposed acting but because foreign policy in Obama's White House had become notoriously overcentralized and micromanaged.

The administration had consolidated decision-making in the relatively small and overwhelmed National Security Council, taking it away from agencies like the Pentagon and State Department, which were designed to handle it. At the same time, it had top officials "spend[ing] long hours in meetings debating tactics, not long-term strategy," Rohde and Strobel report.

This left little time to grapple with the bigger and more difficult question: what to do on Syria?

"There’s a real choke point," said Michele Flournoy, who served as the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, the No. 3 Pentagon civilian, in Obama’s first term. "There’s only so much bandwidth and there’s only so much they can handle at one time. So, things start to slow down."

The result was that the administration ended up falling into a policy of inaction. Skepticism and indecision led to "no" on arming the rebels as much by accident as by design.

This came after months of contradictory signals from the White House, including many suggestions that the US would support Syria's rebels. This was a reflection of ever-shifting debates within the administration.

The mixed signals left some rebel leaders disillusioned with US policy and believing that Gulf Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar would be more reliable patrons. These states, owing to longstanding policy, preferred to arm the religious extremists they believed were better fighters. Moderates who resisted any ties with extremism, believing this would help them get the US support that they wrongly thought was imminent, lost out.

This same indecision led the administration to first oppose arming the rebels in the fall of 2012 but then, in a secret CIA order that Obama signed in April 2013, approve a plan to arm and train them at a base in Jordan. The CIA program stalled out for months — likely due, at least in part, to administration trepidation as extremism grew in Syria.

The CIA finally began arming rebels in September 2013. It was not because conditions on the ground had become more favorable — quite the opposite. The war had become more of a stalemate and the rebels more tinged with extremism. Many analysts by then were warning that whether the war ended in Assad's victory or defeat, it would almost certainly be followed by a second civil war. Infighting among rebel groups would spiral into full-blown war for control, they warned. Some pointed warily to a belligerent new extremist group calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

The CIA program picked up because Assad had crossed Obama's publicly declared "red line" against using chemical weapons. The administration once again deadlocked under internal disagreements and a dysfunctional decision-making process. It publicly wavered back and forth, first suggesting it would launch retaliatory air and cruise missile strikes against regime targets, then punting the issue to Congress for a decision that was all but certain to be "no," and finally settling on a Moscow-brokered plan to remove Assad's chemical weapons peacefully.

A few short weeks later, US-supplied arms began arriving in rebel hands — a sort of consolation prize to the opposition now that the US had backed off military strikes.

This was how the Obama administration got from early 2012, when the window for US intervention of some kind first opened, into the fall of 2013, by which time it had almost certainly closed, perhaps for good.

By mid-2014, the Obama administration had come around to believing that Syria's war was dire enough to justify more direct involvement, such as supplying anti-tank TOW missiles that rebels are using to significant effect against Assad's forces. But by the time the US had decided to intervene, it had become too late.

The paradox that makes Syria unfixable for America

Bashar al-Assad (Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)

Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. (Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)

There is something you hear implicit in the way that many Americans talk about Syria, from the refugee crisis to the Russia intervention: If American leadership were only strong enough and our policymakers clever enough, the United States could solve this Syria mess.

Unspoken but widely held, to paraphrase Amanda Taub, is the belief that somewhere in the basement of the White House, hidden under a blanket of dust, is a "stop war in Syria" button that Obama and perhaps European leaders are refusing, out of squeamishness or laziness or nefariousness, to push.

I have bad news: No such button exists. There may have been a time when the US could have interceded in Syria to alleviate or even stop the war, but that time is likely over. Syria is now beyond America's ability to solve.

Syria's torments are myriad: ISIS, barrel bombs, chemical weapons, al-Qaeda, foreign interventions. The violence has killed at least 250,000 as of last count and displaced 12 million, more than half the population. The country is divided between Assad-controlled, rebel-controlled, and ISIS-controlled territory. Towns and neighborhoods are in ruins.

But even after four years, Syria's many problems still derive, at least in part, from two root issues. This is not to say that other things aren't also driving the conflict. But these two factors are at the core of it all. You cannot solve Syria's war without solving both of these things:

  1. The Bashar al-Assad regime, which massacres civilians, drives sectarianism and deliberately promotes extremism
  2. The near-total security vacuum, which allows extremism and warlordism to flourish, fragments the opposition, leads certain minority groups to rally behind Assad out of fear, leaves much of the country so bereft of order that expressing popular will is impossible, and makes political reconciliation both functionally and politically untenable

Syria's paradox is this: Fixing one of these two requires actually worsening the other. Removing Assad would exacerbate the chaos, inviting opposition infighting and giving extremists yet more fertile ground, not unlike Afghanistan's 1990s implosion into civil war after the collapse of the Soviet-allied regime there.

Meanwhile, imposing order on Syria so as to close off the security vacuum would benefit the Assad regime — thus ensuring that conflict would return, as Assad's atrocities have made it impossible for Syrians to accept his continued rule. Yet it is still necessary to remove Assad to end the war: not just because he is deliberately driving the conflict, but because his regime has so lost legitimacy in the eyes of Syrians that it is simply incapable of ruling or restoring order.

It is perhaps theoretically possible that an outside intervention force could both remove Assad and impose order. But given that the years-long, massive-scale, American-led occupation of Iraq didn't do the trick there, such an outside force would likely need to number in the hundreds of thousands and stay for years, if not decades, at tremendous cost, and at risk of simply provoking an uprising against the intervention force.

There is, at this point, no viable way that any outside actor, including the US, could simultaneously solve the Assad problem and the chaos problem. Policies meant to counter Assad — bombing his forces, for example, or backing anti-Assad rebels — would address the Assad problem but could not solve the chaos problem and would risk worsening it.

Meanwhile, policies meant to address the chaos — backing anti-ISIS rebels, say, or pushing for a political negotiation, as the Obama administration has been doing — would help Assad's regime in the short term and entrench it in the long term.

The US, ever-more focused on curbing terrorism threats against the homeland, has shifted its focus from Assad to ISIS. The planned US special forces deployment, to northern Syria, appears designed to aid mostly Kurdish fighters against ISIS. The US threatened in 2013 to bomb Assad, but a year later it was leading an international coalition to bomb ISIS instead.

But as US policy against ISIS has hardened, the line on Assad has softened. Most recently, at an international peace talks meeting in Vienna, the US softened its position from demanding that Assad must leave at the start of any political transition to demanding that he leave several months or more after any such transition.

There was a window, but it has closed

Kuni Takahashi/Getty

Libyan rebels stand atop a regime tank destroyed by Western airstrikes in 2011. (Kuni Takahashi/Getty)

There was a time before Syria was a paradox, before it was unsolvable. It's difficult to say for sure when that time ended, when the window closed. And policy analysts and historians will surely debate, for years to come, what specific US actions — had the US acted when the window was open — might have best addressed Syria's war.

But it is clear that, at the very least, there was a period of time when the US had a range of options that could have led to a range of outcomes. But those options have since closed off, and the outcome we've ended up with is one of the worst imaginable. Maybe it could have been worse, but it certainly could have been better.

There was never an easy or a perfect solution to Syria. But early on, the security vacuum was not so dire, the chaos and destruction not so severe, and the world might have removed Assad without toppling Syria into an unsalvageable chaos.

The opposition was, early on, not nearly so divided by ideology and politics as it is today. Though extremists did begin joining early in 2012, the rebels were still heavily populated by moderate volunteers and defected Syrian soldiers whose primary aim was to topple Assad. Had he fallen then, the opposition might have laid down its arms rather than turning on one another. It was not until late 2013 that rebel infighting became so bad that analysts began warning Assad's fall would lead to a second civil war.

Early on in the war, before Assad destroyed his own country's physical and political infrastructure, there was still enough of a state that a post-Assad government could have, in a best-case scenario, restored order with the consent of the Syrian population. But even if it hadn't, the Syrian population was less riven by sectarianism, the territory less divided among rebel groups apt to lapse into infighting and warlordism.

The point is not to retroactively advocate for a specific policy on Syria, nor to suggest that the country could have been saved completely by US intervention; it's unlikely a war could ever have been averted once Assad decided to fire on his own people. Rather, the point is that removing him could have at least hypothetically opened up a different set of paths for Syria. Those surely would have had downsides as well, and some could be even worse than the status quo, but there is at least a range of possible outcomes that might look better than today's reality.

It is worth considering, just to show that such a range exists, what Syria might look like had it followed the Libya model: Western airstrikes and training to support the opposition, followed by a total state collapse and Western withdrawal, disintegration into militia-dominated chaos including some extremism, and now a second civil war. No one can call Libya's outcome good, but as the activist and writer Iyad el-Baghdadi points out, it is still preferable:

Even using more modest UN numbers for the Syrian death toll, its per capita death rate from war has been about eight times Libya's, and a Syrian is 100 times as likely to become a refugee as a Libyan. In other words, had the world toppled Assad in such a way that Syria followed Libya's path, then this would have saved approximately 220,000 Syrian lives and prevented 3.6 million Syrians from becoming refugees. That is not to characterize Libya as a success — it is not — but rather as a lesser catastrophe.

There were times when a Libya-style outcome looked not just possible but likely for Syria. The July 2012 rebel advance on Damascus, for example, was a moment when Western airstrikes might have cleared the way for the rebels to take the city and push Assad out of power.

Obama's journey on Syria

Drew Angerer - Pool/Getty

Drew Angerer - Pool/Getty

It has been revealing, in this light, to trace the changes in how Obama has discussed Libya. At first, he expressed regret for the intervention itself, characterizing it as a European initiative that the US got dragged into.

"Here is what we knew," Obama told Michael Lewis for Vanity Fair in the fall of 2012, at which point he was resisting similar action in Syria. He went on to describe the intervention as something that had grown unintentionally out of reactiveness and mission creep:

We knew that Qaddafi was moving on Benghazi, and that his history was such that he could carry out a threat to kill tens of thousands of people. We knew we didn't have a lot of time—somewhere between two days and two weeks. We knew they were moving faster than we originally anticipated. We knew that Europe was proposing a no-fly zone. We knew that a no-fly zone would not save the people of Ben­ghazi. The no-fly zone was an expression of concern that didn't real­ly do anything. The last thing we knew is that if you announced a no-fly zone and if it appeared feckless, there would be additional pressure for us to go further. As enthusiastic as France and Britain were about the no-fly zone, there was a danger that if we participated the U.S. would own the operation. Because we had the capacity.

By 2014, when Obama had come around to supporting US action in Syria to support the rebels, the lessons he drew from Libya had shifted as well. He told Thomas Friedman of the New York Times that the intervention had saved Libya from Syria's fate, but that it was nonetheless his greatest regret — because he hadn't gone further:

I'll give you an example of a lesson I had to learn that still has ramifications to this day. And that is our participation in the coalition that overthrew Qaddafi in Libya. I absolutely believed that it was the right thing to do. ... Had we not intervened, it's likely that Libya would be Syria. ... And so there would be more death, more disruption, more destruction. But what is also true is that I think we [and] our European partners underestimated the need to come in full force if you're going to do this. Then it's the day after Qaddafi is gone, when everybody is feeling good and everybody is holding up posters saying, ‘Thank you, America.' At that moment, there has to be a much more aggressive effort to rebuild societies that didn't have any civic traditions. ... So that's a lesson that I now apply every time I ask the question, "Should we intervene, militarily? Do we have an answer [for] the day after?"

In both cases, Obama seems to be weighing his Syria policy through the lens of Libya. In 2012, when he opposed intervening, he saw his Libya intervention as a regrettable error. But by 2014, he had come around to favoring US action in Syria and now saw the Libya intervention as insufficient.

But, crucially, the effort to topple Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi began almost immediately when that country's uprising turned violent, and ended in October 2011, only a few months after it had begun.

Now, four years into Syria's war, toppling Assad would likely produce a total implosion more like 1990s Afghanistan, where the mujahideen who had fought the pro-Soviet government then turned against one another in a terrible civil war, out of which the Taliban emerged.

In Syria, if Assad's regime were to collapse today, the already fractious rebels would surely fight one another for control, as some already are. The chaos would worsen as the front lines multiplied, with ISIS and al-Qaeda likely benefiting.

To be clear, Assad created these conditions. He deliberately fostered both extremism and sectarianism for the express purpose of closing the world's window on intervening against him. He destroyed his own country, eradicating political and physical infrastructure such that organizing any post-Assad order looks near impossible. But it was evident that he was doing this throughout 2012 and 2013. As America stood by and watched, as the Obama administration vacillated between policies it would adopt only after it was too late, Assad hastened his own nation's destruction so as to close the window on an American solution to the Syrian war. And it worked.

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