Analysis: Obama Appears at a Loss to Define the Way Forward in Syria

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

President Obama did not start the Syrian crisis, and the blood-soaked civil war has never lent itself to easy choices. In fact, the choices have always been among the hardest any U.S. president has faced in the region.

Syria is more than a country, and its civil war is more than a brutal and bloody story of a dictatorial regime pulverizing a largely defenseless civilian population. Syria sits at a strategic crossroads and has for decades been the conduit of cash and operational expertise linking meddlesome Iran to the east with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.

Obama ran and won on ending the Iraq war and has never had an interest in starting one in neighboring Syria. Neither, for that matter, have U.S. allies Jordan and Israel. For two years, Obama and the Israelis and Jordanians have calculated that Syria's regime--led by Bashir Assad--would cave to outside pressure and not choose ruination for his country's cities, its history, and its people.

Assad has not caved. He has hunkered down and fought. This decision did not come without less-appreciated strategic advantages for the U.S. and its allies. There is a very cold and practical analysis of these advantages within the White House, and it has in significant ways influenced Obama's policy.

A Syria bedeviled by civil war is less financially and operationally active in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. A besieged Syrian regime makes Tehran shiver as it contemplates a future without a client state on the doorstep of the places it most wants to destabilize--Israel and Jordan. A teetering Syria draws the attention of other Gulf powers like Saudi Arabia. That complicates Iran's calculations as well, as it fears Saudi encroachment where it once pulled most if not all of the strings.

The administration saw this pragmatic side of the civil war. The "realists" argued that these strategic pluses gave the U.S. time to adapt to the complex post-Arab spring chess board of evolving Middle East politics and alliances. What the U.S. could do well, it did. That meant humanitarian aid in Jordan and wherever it could be provided--through whatever means--inside Syria. The U.S. was also cautious not to lionize unreliable or disorganized dissident forces, waiting for them to coalesce. That they have not done so only reinforced the "realist" voice of caution about the U.S. picking sides.

And for all the sudden Republican interest in no-fly zones and beefed-up arming of the rebels, the GOP was largely silent about Syria in the 2012 campaign and devoted no attention to developing a better policy that would pass muster with war-weary voters or advance U.S. interests. Even now, the country has no appetite for a Syrian conflict. In the latest CBS News poll, only 24 percent said we had a responsibility to intervene in Syria, while 62 percent said we had no responsibility. Even among those following Syria's horrors closely (10 percent), 47 percent said we had a responsibility and 48 percent said we did not.

Obama's approach to this scenario reminds me of a minor scene in the 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia. In it, the commanding officer of all British war efforts in Arabia, Gen. Edmund Allenby, is challenged by a junior officer about his decision not to intervene more decisively on the side of the Arab Bedouin fighting the Turks in 1917.

The junior officer is Col. Harry Brighton, a fictionalized amalgam of British officers who backed T.E. Lawrence's irregular war against the Turks. He wants Allenby to do more for Lawrence and the Bedouin as both teeter on collapse after many early successes.

"Look, sir," Brighton implores Allenby. "We can't just do nothing."

"Why not?" Allenby replies with a sigh. "It's usually best."

In essence, the Allenby policy has been U.S. policy in Syria. Humanitarian assistance is not nothing. But if you talk to reporters like my CBS colleague Clarissa Ward, they will say it feels like nothing. For rebels and dissidents starving for weapons and civilians wailing and dying under the onslaught of unchecked Syrian air power, they see Obama's policy as the equivalent of Allenby's. And they live with it and die with it every day.

This was all visible until Obama, fearing Assad might use chemical weapons to cling to power, developed his "red line" deterrent approach. Obama assumed that by threatening unspecified action against Assad, the dictator would refrain from using chemical weapons and nerve agents and accept some political exit that would save his skin and maybe those of a few regime sycophants. That approach has largely worked.

But with evidence now that chemical weapons have been used--sarin twice in the past month, according to Secretary of State John Kerry--the rhetorical vagueness of Obama's "red line" is now under justifiable scrutiny. What is the red line, when is it crossed, and what are the consequences? Such are the uncomfortable questions of an Allenby-plus policy.

On Friday, Obama said the U.S. would not tolerate the "systematic use of weapons like chemical weapons on civilian populations." Adding the modifier "systematic" sent shivers down the spine of Syrian civilians and U.N. aid workers in no position to defend themselves from such an onslaught.

At Tuesday's press conference, Obama appeared at a loss to define the line, the policy, or the consequences.

"I've got to make sure I've got the facts," Obama said about the chain of evidence of sarin use by the Syrian regime. "If we end up rushing to judgment without hard, effective evidence, then we can find ourselves in a situation where we can't mobilize the international community to support what we do."

All would agree it would be unwise to "rush to judgment" or lose international community backing. But Obama appeared incapable of describing next steps--larding caution about judgment atop a policy that appeared suffused with caution already.

"If I can establish, in a way that not only the United States but also the international community feel confident is the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, that is a game-changer.... By 'game-changer,' I mean that we would have to rethink the range of options that are available to us."

Rethink the range of options available. That sounds like Allenby-minus.

The administration, according to The Washington Post, is now considering sending the rebels lethal arms. Many details remain unresolved, and consultations with Russia could slow the final decision and mean weeks more fighting without new military facts on the ground.

This may be a sign that Obama is moving away from Allenby. Or it may be a signal that he's using the threat of a Russian green light for lethal arms to signal to Assad he has one last chance to opt for a political solution and leave with his life.

Obama may be buying time with fuzzy rhetoric. If he isn't, North Korea and Iran will take notice, and complications with both nations and their nuclear ambitions will multiply.

This article appears in the May 1, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily.

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