Analysis: Obama’s Syria mission becomes murkier

High-drama hearings, speeches and briefings raise more questions than they answer.

STATESMAN WASHINGTON BUREAUSeptember 7, 2013 

US SYRIA DELIBERATIONS 2

President Barack Obama meets with his national security advisers in the Oval Office of the White House last month to discuss strategy in Syria and President Bashar Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons.

PETE SOUZA — The White House via The New York Times

  • PRESIDENT TO ADDRESS AMERICANS TUESDAY

    Speaking at the end of a two-day G20 economic summit overshadowed by his call to strike Syria, President Barack Obama said he’d “make the best case that I can” to a nation that polls show is widely opposed to military intervention.

    “There are times where we have to make hard choices if we’re going to stand up for the things that we care about,” the president said. “And I believe that this is one of those times.”

    Obama won qualified support from allies Friday in his charge that Syria used chemical weapons against its people, but he walked away without expanding his coalition of explicit support for a military strike.

    The White House issued a statement of support at the close of the summit from 10 U.S. allies — Australia, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Turkey and the United Kingdom — that said they backed “efforts undertaken by the United States and other countries to reinforce the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.”

    The statement didn’t mention military strikes and didn’t say the countries would join the U.S. militarily or monetarily.

    Russian President Vladimir Putin said the U.S. push for military action has been supported only by Turkey, Canada, Saudi Arabia and France.

    Statesman wire services

The first week of President Barack Obama’s bid to build political unity on Syria by bringing in Congress ended in near disarray, with top Cabinet officers and Pentagon officials providing nebulous or even contradictory responses to inquiries from frustrated lawmakers and reporters.

All the clamor on Capitol Hill, at the White House and beyond left Americans uncertain about the costs, consequences and extent of a risky intervention that is still in the works.

Analysts and lawmakers across the political spectrum were openly skeptical that Obama and his aides could make good on their repeated pledges that a U.S. strike would be of limited scope and short duration, likely delivered by Tomahawk cruise missiles and with no American troops in Syria.

“It’s very difficult to hold the line at this kind of halfway position the president has proposed,” said Jeremy Shapiro, a former State Department adviser under Obama who is now a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “This is a very important step down a slippery slope, and it’s unlikely to be the last step.”

Despite Secretary of State John Kerry’s assurances to Congress during two days of testimony that “the president is not asking you to go to war,” a bipartisan consensus emerged that once the bombs start flying, all bets are off — especially in a country like Syria, torn by two years of civil strife and, more broadly, in a region as volatile as the Middle East.

Regardless of how an initial U.S. strike in Syria would play out, the ghosts of troubled wars past haunted the debate in Congress, from presidents’ frequent false assurances that the tide was turning in Vietnam to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s assertion that U.S. troops in Iraq faced only “pockets of dead-enders” in March 2003, seven years and 4,300 American deaths before the end of U.S. combat there.

While Obama won a compromised victory with narrow passage of a war resolution by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, senators from his own party defected. And the man Obama defeated in the 2008 presidential election, maverick Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, raised red flags by inserting a clause defining one of the U.S. mission’s purposes as “change the momentum on the battlefield in Syria,” an ambitious goal that seems beyond the reach of a limited missile strike with no American troops in place.

Much of the damage to Obama’s cause was self-inflicted by the men he dispatched to Capitol Hill.

Kerry began his testimony by saying no U.S. warriors would set foot in Syria. But he then sketched a compelling scenario — one in which, he said, “Syria imploded” or chemical weapons might be close to “falling into the hands” of al-Qaida-linked rebels — that might require them to do so. That set off a fusillade of questions from lawmakers about the apparent contradiction.

In the coming days, “no boots on the ground” became the Obama team’s mantra. At a Pentagon briefing Thursday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s spokesman, George Little, used the phrase 18 times in 45 minutes.

Kerry also raised eyebrows when he testified that 15 percent to 25 percent of the Syrian opposition fighting Assad is made up of “bad guys” — radical Islamists, many with al-Qaida ties. That range flew in the face of much higher figures provided to lawmakers by intelligence agencies.

Bruce Riedel, who served under five presidents as a CIA counterterrorism expert, said foreign fighters linked to al-Qaida have been flowing into Syria to take up the fight against Assad and that a U.S. strike against the regime would only strengthen them more.

“We should have no illusion that at the end of the day, the more we weaken Bashar Assad, the more we’re going to end up having a bigger al-Qaida problem in the future,” said Riedel, now a Brookings analyst.

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