Americans unquestionably oppose any U.S. military intervention in Syria of the “boots on the ground” variety. They’re not fans of the idea of air strikes there, either. But how would they respond to narrowly tailored attacks targeting Islamist fighters who may be looking to use that country’s lawless war zones as a staging ground for potential attacks on U.S. allies, U.S. interests and possibly the United States itself? Would such a limited approach really help increasingly desperate moderate fighters squeezed between those extremists and strongman Bashar Assad’s troops? And what risk would it pose in terms of sucking the United States into an escalating role in the Syrian conflict?
Those are central, pressing questions as President Barack Obama assesses his handling of arguably the worst foreign policy disaster of his administration and gives fresh thought to a limited military role, according to current and former administration officials and congressional aides.
“Right now we don’t think that there is a military solution, per se, to the problem,” Obama said last week at a joint press conference with his closest ally on the issue, French President Francois Hollande. “But the situation is fluid, and we are continuing to explore every possible avenue to solve this problem.”
Obama also signaled that his thinking has changed on whether the bloody conflict threatens core American interests, notably the stability of key friends in the region like Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon as well as countries like Iraq.
“It’s not just heartbreaking to see what’s happening to the Syrian people, it’s very dangerous for the region as a whole, including friends and allies and partners like Lebanon or Jordan,” he said.
That’s an important shift because Obama’s old argument for setting the limits he did on American actions in Syria turned in part on the idea that the humanitarian disaster unfolding there did not threaten core U.S. interests — such as the stability of key allies. When he threatened the use of force in 2013, he argued it was the use of chemical weapons on a large scale — not the surging death toll — that threatened U.S. interests, by undermining an international norm the U.S. wants upheld.
The same questions and concerns have dogged U.S. policy towards Syria for the entirely of the nearly three years since the civil war flared up in March 2011.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday that “the military option always remains available and on the table,” but warned against a “rush” to embrace well-intentioned yet misguided action.
“While everyone is enormously concerned about and frustrated by the situation in Syria, it should be on everyone's mind that when we look at the situation we're in, we have to examine what the alternatives some might be proposing are and whether they're in our national security interest, and whether a desire to do something about it could lead us, the United States, to take action that can produce the kind of unintended consequences we've seen in the past,” Carney said.
Tragic and gripping photographs from Syria have horrified the world. But the precise death toll is unclear: The United Nations announced last month it would no longer update its estimate and could no longer vouch for the 100,000 figure it gave in July 2013. Pro-opposition activists have offered the unverifiable number of 140,000.
But there’s no sign that the Pentagon has revised its very public misgivings about options like trying to ground Syrian air power, or carrying out air strikes or setting up humanitarian “corridors” through which aid could flow.
The White House doesn’t seem to have changed its mind about not shipping heavier weapons to the rebels, like shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles that could take down Assad’s helicopters — or perhaps commercial airliners if they should fall into the wrong hands.
Then there’s the little matter of Congress refusing to give the green light for military action against Syria last year. With the midterm elections looming, Obama is unlikely to commit to an unpopular course of action that risks facing another bipartisan defeat.
Efforts to broker a diplomatic settlement between Assad and moderate rebels show no promise right now. Russia and China have blocked any effort by the U.N. Security Council to tighten the pressure on the regime in Damascus.
But senior intelligence officials late last month opened a new path for Obama to increase U.S. involvement in a way that wouldn’t require congressional authorization, could minimize a public backlash and might give Syria’s moderates some breathing room.
How? By telling Congress that Syria increasingly serves as a base, not just a battleground, for extremist groups looking to someday attack the United States.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper compared areas of Syria held by groups the United States considers terrorists to remote areas of Pakistan that are thought to harbor al-Qaida. Those groups have “aspirations for attacks” on the United States, he told the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“We're seeing now the appearance of training complexes in Syria to train people to go back to their countries and, of course, conduct more terrorist acts. So this is a huge concern to all of us,” Clapper said.
At least one major White House ally in Congress, Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein, seems to agree.
“Because large swaths of the country of Syria are beyond the regime's control or that of the moderate opposition, this leads to the major concern of the establishment of a safe haven and the real prospect that Syria could become a launching point or way station for terrorists seeking to attack the United States or other nations,” she said at the hearing.
National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) director Matthew Olsen echoed Clapper, warning the committee of “the potential for terrorist attacks emanating from Syria to the West.”
And CIA Director John Brennan added his voice, saying that “with the increasing diversity of the threats and with the growth, as you pointed out, of terrorist elements in places like Syria and Yemen, we have a number of fronts that we need to confront simultaneously.”
Likening Syria to Yemen raises the possibility that America could widen its much-criticized strategy of targeting extremists with drone strikes.
Congressional officials say that the idea of using unmanned aerial vehicles against targets in Syria has gained currency inside the administration in recent weeks, but caution against expecting an imminent shift, much less announcement of a new policy.
But it would fit with the strategy Obama announced last year at the National Defense University, when he proclaimed that such strikes were legal and effective and reserved the right to use them when the local government cannot, or will not, confront a threat to the United States.
“Where foreign governments cannot or will not effectively stop terrorism in their territory, the primary alternative to targeted lethal action would be the use of conventional military options,” including drone strikes, he said.
Obama’s worries that Syria may be the next safe harbor for terrorists aren’t new. He laid them out in March 2013 at a joint press conference with King Abdullah II of Jordan.
“I am very concerned about Syria becoming an enclave for extremism because extremists thrive in chaos, they thrive in failed space, they thrive in power vacuums,” he said. “They're very good about exploiting situations that are no longer functioning. They fill that gap.”
Whatever Obama decides, he’ll have to keep in mind the worries of allies like Jordan, which has absorbed a flood of some 600,000 Syrian refugees. And he’s unlikely to announce new steps before wrapping up a Middle East diplomatic push that includes a March 3 meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and talks later next month with Saudi King Abdullah.
And for an administration that used to argue that its policy hasn’t failed, it just hasn’t succeeded yet, the change in tone could be just that.