President Obama last year counted on a quick ouster of Syrian President Bashar Assad — an outcome that seems less certain today as the White House searches for another strategy that might give weapons to rebels.
A review of public statements shows that officials in the Obama administration last year thought Mr. Assad’s brutal tactics, such as an all-out assault on the city of Aleppo, would cause him to face internal opposition and lose power to the hodgepodge of Islamic and secular insurgents fighting his regime.
“I think if they continue this kind of tragic attack on their own people in Aleppo, I think it ultimately will be a nail in Assad’s own coffin,” Leon E. Panetta said in July as defense secretary. “He’s just assuring that the Assad regime will come to an end by virtue of the kind of violence that they’re permitting against their own people.
“I think it’s pretty clear that what Assad has been doing to his own people, and what he continues to do to his own people, makes clear that his regime is coming to an end.”
Ten months later, Mr. Assad not only remains in power but also has solidified support from Iran, which has organized militias to augment Syria’s armed forces. There also is evidence that Mr. Assad authorized the use of chemical weapons, a “red line” that the Obama administration warned a year ago the Syrian regime should not cross or else face consequences.
“I think everyone is surprised at how resilient the regime has been,” said James Russell, a former Pentagon official and now an instructor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterrey, Calif. “The main thing is that his army has not turned its guns on the regime, and the Mukhabarat state security service has not turned and run when faced with an enemy in the field. The security services have been the Assad family’s pillar, and it has proven to be stronger than we thought.”
‘The days are numbered’
In February, Mr. Panetta revealed a wide split within the administration. He, along with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, endorsed giving arms to vetted rebels. But the White House vetoed the move.
Meanwhile, a NATO-led air campaign in Libya is credited with tipping the battle in favor of rebels who ousted dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. Mr. Obama was decidedly cool toward the operation but acceded to the wishes of Britain and France.
Mr. Panetta was not the only Obama official who predicted last year that Mr. Assad would fall. Mrs. Clinton predicted that the Syrian dictator’s military would get tired of the killing and bump him from power, as what happened in Tunisia and Egypt.
“We also know from many sources there are people around Assad now who are beginning to hedge their bets,” Mrs. Clinton said at a conference in Tunisia in February 2012. “They didn’t sign up to slaughter people and they are looking for ways out. We saw this happen in other settings in the last years. I think it is going to begin happening in Syria.”
Five months later, Mrs. Clinton, while in Tokyo, said of the Assad regime: “The days are numbered. And as we saw with the recent high-level defection, with the increasing numbers of defections, the sand is running out of the hourglass.”
James Phillips, a Middle East analyst at the Heritage Foundation, called these statements “wishful thinking.”
“I think the Obama administration’s Syria policy has been flawed from the beginning by wishful thinking,” he said. “It initially saw Assad as a reformer who should be engaged rather than a brutal dictator who relied on terror to maintain control of his own people and exported terrorism to advance Syria’s hostile foreign policy.”
As the conflict erupted in March 2011 and intensified, Mr. Obama and others called on Mr. Assad to leave but put no pressure on him, Mr. Phillips said.
Mr. Obama turned to the United Nations, which gave Russia, a strong Syrian ally, and China the opportunity to veto a get-tough resolution.
“The lesson is that when an administration leads from behind, U.S. national interests get left behind,” Mr. Phillips said.
“It is hard to see how he will be able to die in office, after a long life, as his father did,” Mr. Crowley said.
The administration has made mistakes, he said, such as comparing the Syrian revolt to the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
“The Syrian security forces made a different choice, remaining devoted as an institution to the Assad family rather than the Syrian people,” he said. “There have been many defections and there will be many more. The Syrian military is under enormous pressure and is likely to crack at some point. The military leadership might decide to save itself at Assad’s expense, but there is no indication that we are close to that moment.”
But the Syrian military’s devotion validates Mr. Obama’s cautious approach because “if we become an active combatant, it will entail far more effort, risk and cost than we think to dislodge him,” Mr. Crowley said.
Said the naval school’s Mr. Russell: “There’s international pressure to intervene, but how would we intervene exactly? And to what end? This is a civil war, which means we have to back a side, or sides, since there are multiple parties that are fighting each other. Not all the people fighting on the same ‘side’ share the same political objectives. Our recent record in picking winners, so to speak, is pretty mixed.”