President Obama defends his Syria strategy during a news conference at the end of the G-20 summit in Antalya, Turkey, Monday.

President Obama defends his Syria strategy during a news conference at the end of the G-20 summit in Antalya, Turkey, Monday. Mehmet Guzel/Associated Press

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Scholars Blast Obama’s Syria Policy

Brookings analysts say political expediency has taken precedence over long-term sustainability.

The Obama administration’s Syria policy is the product of “Barack Obama, full stop,” former CIA analyst Kenneth Pollack said on Monday when asked whether the president’s national security advisers, Secretary of State John Kerry or the Pentagon shared responsibility for the administration’s approach in Syria.

That policy took a beating at a Brookings Institution panel on policy options for the war-torn country, an event planned long before the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris attributed to the Islamic State. It took place hours after Obama defended his rejection of a stronger U.S. presence in the region by vowing not to “shoot first and aim later.”

Calling Obama’s four-year reluctance to more aggressively intervene in Syria a “bankrupt policy,” Pollack, who served on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration, said Obama’s focus on containing the Islamic State rather resolving Syria’s civil war was “self-defeating and nonsensical.” Like many politicians in Washington, Pollack said, Obama has a predilection for “doing what’s expedient,” which meant putting Syria’s long-term governance and political makeup “on the back burner.”

Pollack mocked the Pentagon’s now-abandoned effort to recruit, train and arm Syrian “moderates,” saying the loyalty standards required of the various ethnic groups were far too high. He has proposed that the United States organize, in cooperation, with friendlier powers in the region, an independent Syrian opposition force to take out dictator Bashar al-Assad without large numbers of U.S. troops. “The American people seem to want” more involvement, it’s the “Washington elites who’re against it,” Pollack said.

His Brookings colleague Michael O’Hanlon blasted the current negotiations Secretary Kerry helped convene in Vienna for focusing on outside powers’ interests rather than the Syrians. “They’re worse than useless, they’re counterproductive,” he said, calling for a long-term approach that would aim for a “confederation” of ethnic and religious groups within Syria rather than a new central government.

Tamara Cofman Wittes, who directs the Brookings Center for Middle East Policy, outlined four distinct Obama policies toward Syria, each of which was superseded in speeches in response to such events as the Arab Spring and ISIS’s capture of the Iraqi city of Mosul. “Each has foundered on the realities of that discordant region, and our allies are not on board,” she said. 

The broad problem for the entire troubled region is an absence of “order and authority,” Wittes said, and in focusing on ISIS, Obama neglects to present any related solutions. “His strategy doesn’t address Assad’s brutality, his war against his own people,” she said.

“The White House needs to take the regional players’ interests more seriously,” she added. Rather than having the great powers in Vienna impose an external solution, “it’s better to work from the bottom up.”

Senior fellow and counterterrorism specialist Daniel Byman favored an approach he called “containment” of ISIL and Assad’s forces in key pockets in the area, stressing the need to “do something in the meantime” given the reluctance of many Americans to get more deeply involved in Syria—a reluctance that may be changing, polls show.

Middle East specialist William McCants said Obama started out in 2011 “trying to be on the right side of history by vowing to remove Assad. But once it was clear this wasn’t going to happen, his natural skepticism of military action kicked in and he hampered the military and the CIA, he said. “His default position is to keep out, but the problem with halfway means is that the problem now is coming to us.”

All agreed that there is no easy or perfect solution for the Syrian and ISIS crises, and all of the panel’s alternatives, as Pollack put it, “stink.”