Obama’s policy on Syria leaves analysts guessing

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The Obama administration has made no effort to dispute reports that the U.S. is providing secret military training to Syria’s opposition rebels and continues to favor vague rhetoric over specifics about its policy regarding the Middle Eastern nation — particularly on the question of whether to arm rebels.

White House spokesman Jay Carney offered a flummoxing answer Friday when a reporter asked how involved U.S. officials have become in training rebels who are fighting military forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“We have always been clear that our nonlethal assistance to the Syrian opposition includes equipment and training to build a capacity of civilian activists, and to link Syrian citizens with the Syrian Opposition Coalition and local coordinating councils,” Mr. Carney said.Pressed for a clarification “in English,” Mr. Carney responded with a reworded version of the same talking point while adding: “I don’t have anything for you.”

The exchange was an example of what several foreign policy insiders tell The Washington Times has become a concerted White House effort to avoid taking a clear position on U.S. policy toward Syria’s 2-year-old civil war.”Obama does not want to lead on Syria,” said Joshua Landis, who heads the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and edits the Syria Comment blog.

“He doesn’t want to get into mission creep and is trying to avoid spending a lot of money,” said Mr. Landis, who believes Mr. Obama’s assessment is rooted in the notion that Syria is “already broken” and “once you take leadership, you own it.”

A Cabinet divided

The catch, other analysts say, is that Mr. Obama’s position has not been derived from a consensus among his advisers, several of whom apparently have been advocating for months that the U.S. take a more aggressive — even militarized — leadership role toward ending the conflict in Syria.

The most clear divisions have arisen over whether the U.S. should directly arm rebels fighting Syrian military forces loyal to Mr. Assad.

The administration has suggested publicly the high risk of U.S. weaponry ending up in the hands of Islamist extremists believed to be among those fighting Mr. Assad. The State Department has leveled sanctions against one group, the al-Nusra Front, on grounds that it is an alias for al Qaeda in Iraq — an organization that just a few years ago was targeting U.S. forces in Iraq.

Some senior Cabinet officials, however, have argued privately that the presence of the extremists provides all the more reason for the U.S. to move weapons to more secular forces in the opposition so that the extremists do not totally take over the fight.

Mr. Obama, evidently, has resisted that argument.

During congressional testimony in February, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta revealed how the White House blocked a plan to directly arm Syria’s rebels, despite its backing by former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former CIA Director David H. Petraeus.

One source familiar with U.S. policy on Syria said the resistance to getting more deeply involved in the conflict appeared to be a “top-down decision.”

The source, who agreed to speak frankly with The Times on condition of anonymity, said Mr. Obama “hopes there could be a political solution to the conflict, when there just isn’t one.”

“I think it’s just denial,” said the source, who suggested the president has grown increasingly unwilling during recent months to acknowledge publicly or privately that his policy has failed.

Haze of misinformation

From a public relations standpoint, the White House faces an uphill battle on Syria. With the U.N. saying more than 70,000 people have been killed in the war since March 2011, Mr. Obama risks being accused of flatly ignoring a highly publicized humanitarian crisis in the heart of the Middle East.

Some foreign policy insiders say the predicament finds the White House increasingly willing to play along with recent news reports suggesting the U.S. is clandestinely more involved than it actually is in an attempt to influence the outcome of the war.

Mr. Carney, for instance, did not deny the validity of reports last week by The Associated Press and Fox News, both of whom cited unnamed sources, that U.S. has for months been training Syrian opposition fighters at a secret camp in Jordan.

Nor has the administration sought to discredit a recent report by The New York Times, which also cited unnamed sources, that the CIA has helped Arab governments and Turkey sharply increase their military aid to Syria’s opposition with secret airlifts of arms and equipment during recent months.

“It’s useful for the administration to have all this reporting out there that we’re actually doing something and not just sitting on our hands,” said Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It’s useful to take the pressure off from various quarters about getting more involved.”

Mr. White, who spent three decades as an intelligence officers at the Defense Intelligence Agency, cautioned against reading the reports as an indication that U.S. policy is truly shifting. “There are huge amounts of smoke here, but I’m not sure how much fire there is,” he said.

Lack of strategic vision

While he acknowledged he “might be wrong,” Mr. White said there appears to be “no real strategic concept of how to manage getting the Assad regime off the stage and creating a stable Syria.”

The White House’s approach, he said, “seems more ad-hoc and reactive.”

Mr. Landis added that the conflict has grown far more complicated than most administration officials are now willing to publicly admit. One exception, he said, may be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, who suggested recently that whatever vague grasp the administration may once have had on Syria’s opposition forces is now deteriorating.

“About six months ago, we had a very opaque understanding of the opposition and now I would say it’s even more opaque,” Gen. Dempsey said during a March 18 appearance at the Center for Strategic International Studies think tank in Washington. “I don’t think at this point I can see a military option that would create an understandable outcome.”

The assessment may offer the clearest insight into how the president actually sees the conflict, said Mr. Landis, who added: “There’s an ethnic civil war going on and Obama doesn’t want to get involved.”

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

About the Author
Guy Taylor

Guy Taylor

Guy Taylor is the National Security Team Leader at The Washington Times, overseeing the paper’s State Department, Pentagon and intelligence community coverage. He’s also a frequent guest on The McLaughlin Group and C-SPAN.

His series on political, economic and security developments in Mexico won a 2012 Virginia Press Association award.

Prior to rejoining The Times in 2011, his work was ...

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