Behind Obama’s Big 'No!' on Syria

Michael Hirsh
National Journal

It’s too generous to say President Obama is “leading from behind” on Syria. A better description might be that he’s getting dragged in by the ear. Yet bit by bit, pressured mainly by France but also by shifting opinion in Washington, the administration is sending signals that it knows it can’t avoid involvement in the Syrian civil war forever.

Among influential figures on Capitol Hill who are putting new pressure on the president to better supply and arm the Syrian rebels is Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. “The deterioration in Syria is breathtakingly bad,” Rogers told National Journal in an interview, saying the possible collapse of the Syrian state into chaos is his “No. 1 national security priority in the region right now.” Rogers added: “I am very, very concerned by the sheer level of al-Qaida, Hezbollah, and maybe elements of Hamas who are on the battlefield. If there is a free-fall collapse of the [Bashar] Assad government, a chaos could ensue that means that not just chemical weapons but other sophisticated weapons, some supplied by Russia, could proliferate on battlefields across the Levant.”

Currently, Rogers added, the U.S. has no input or diplomatic leverage to bring to bear inside Syria. The administration, he said, should pay heed to what happened in Mali and other neighboring countries after Libya’s weapons caches spread across the region. 

Yet the lesson of Libya’s weapons depots also helps explain why the administration is so reluctant to offer more than humanitarian aid, despite the horrific tally—more than 70,000 dead in two years. Obama’s dilemma can be summed up in two Washington Post headlines this week. On Tuesday, the newspaper reported on the mounting pressure to intervene: “UN: Syria’s humanitarian crisis is ‘dramatic beyond description.’ ” The next day the Post’s intrepid Liz Sly, reporting from the rebel-held city of Aleppo, wrote of the main reason why Obama doesn’t want to do more. The headline: “Islamist Law Takes Root in Rebel-held Syria.”

The administration’s central fear is that in a country that appears to be fissuring into ethnic fighting—like so many other countries in the region—the better-organized Islamist groups are making the most rapid military advances. Among the most fearsome of these: Jabhat al-Nusra , a Syrian rebel force that may have ties to al-Qaida and opposes elections as “anti-Islamic.”Hence, the center of Western opposition to arming the rebels appears to be holding, for the moment, even as Iran and Russia allegedly send weapons to shore up the besieged Assad regime.

So President Obama is still saying no, as is the European Union, which is likely to uphold its arms embargo. On Tuesday, Adm. James Stavridis, commander of U.S. European Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that NATO is "looking at a variety of operations" it could conduct in Syria, but the alliance's official position is "no way," too. "NATO as a whole has no plans for military intervention in Syria,” Col. Martin Downie, the NATO spokesman, told National Journal on Wednesday.

Despite the rising cry for intervention, U.S. observers also note that much of the current fighting involves various U.S. enemies who are attacking each other: Sunni jihadists in Syria are being joined by Iraqi Sunni insurgents across the border who are now sometimes fighting Hezbollah Shiites, as well as the Assad government. If it were not that tens of thousands of innocents are being killed and wounded, the conflict could almost be considered a “net gain” at this point in terms of “cold calculations of national interest,” says Douglas Ollivant, the former director for Iraq at the National Security Council during the Bush and Obama administrations.

The French government, which is hinting broadly that it may soon openly supply arms to the rebels, says the humanitarian disaster is too grave to ignore and the dangers of inaction—of a broader regional war that may already be dragging in Turkey and Lebanon—are now even greater than the risks of arming terrorists. France is urging the U.S. to at least shift its tone and threaten the delivery of arms in order to pressure Bashar al-Assad to the bargaining table. Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to do that, at long last, this week. "The United States does not stand in the way of other countries that made a decision to provide arms, whether it’s France or Britain or others,” he said, adding that the war is becoming a “global catastrophe.”

If he doesn’t act, Obama risks his credibility, jeopardizing the mere patina of U.S. leadership that remains in a region he has largely sought to withdraw from. Last August Obama declared that Assad’s use of chemical weapons would be a "red line" for him. "That would change my calculus," Obama said. Despite mounting evidence that they have been used, however, the administration is still equivocating. "We're probing hard but can't confirm the reports at this time,” said a U.S. official involved in the intelligence tracking. Rogers said he thought there was a "high probability" of their use but had no further evidence. "If the president needs a day or two to take a look at everything, then I’m for that,” Rogers said. Still, he added, "When you say something is a red line, it can’t be a pink line, it can’t be a dotted line, it can’t be an imaginary line."

A CIA assessment concluded that a recent administration proposal to arm the rebels with small-scale weapons—the only kind that U.S. officials feel they could responsibly send to the rebels—would not be enough to tip the balance of the conflict. U.S. and Israeli officials fear delivering anything larger or more lethal, such as anti-tank or surface-to-air missiles, could be used on U.S., Israeli, or commercial targets if they fell into terrorist hands. Chris Dougherty, an expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, said the "ideal" weapons to arm the Syrian opposition groups, such as  man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) that could counter the Syrian Air Force's control of the skies, anti-tank guided munitions such as the FGM-148 Javelin, and GPS- or laser-guided mortar rounds, are also the weapons that "have the most potential for blowback."

But a European diplomat said discussions "are ongoing in Paris and London" to deliver larger weapons such as tanks that can be monitored and controlled, and which require a steady stream of spare parts and ammunition, employing reliable channels linked to Gen Salim Idris, who defected from Assad’s army last July and is now the leader of the Free Syrian Army's unified military command. "We consider him to be a very good interlocutor," said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "There is some stuff, ammunition for example, which is much more traceable. It’s easier to provide a tank and know where it is than MANPADS for instance."

Rogers said he supports light infantry weapons that would be "feathered" into the battlefield gradually. "I was originally opposed. I didn’t think we had a very good handle on who was on the ground in the beginning, and then we had this rise in jihadists, attaching themselves to these more secular units. But what I’m arguing is offer training, and once they’re trained, equipping them."