More than six weeks after Barack Obama pulled back from military intervention in Syria, officials in the Administration have criticized him as “uncertain”.
The attack on Obama — and perhaps a renewed push for US support of the opposition and the insurgency — appears to be coming from the State Department, which pressed for the public supply of arms to insurgents earlier this year and sought a military response to the Assad regime’s chemical weapons attacks of August 21.
The effort, made through The New York Times, may also be an attempt to check Obama’s effective acceptance of President Assad remaining in power.
After it retreated from intervention at the start of September, the Administration joined Russia in an initiative to confiscate Syria’s chemical weapons stocks. It has also accompanied Moscow in pressing for a political conference in Geneva, even though the Syrian opposition has said it will not attend without a promise that Assad will step down.
On Monday, Secretary of State Kerry toughened up the American line after meeting Saudi and Qatari Foreign Ministers, “I don’t know anyone who believes the opposition will ever consent to Bashar al-Assad being part of Government….This war will not end as long as…he is there.”
This morning, the headline in The New York Times challenges the President, “Obama’s Uncertain Path Amid Syria Bloodshed”, opening with an anecdote which seems to have come from the State Department.
With rebel forces in Syria in retreat and the Obama administration’s policy toward the war-ravaged country in disarray, Secretary of State John Kerry arrived at the White House Situation Room one day in June with a document bearing a warning. President Bashar al-Assad of Syria had used chemical weapons against his people, the document said, and if the United States did not “impose consequences,” Mr. Assad would see it as a “green light for continued CW use”.
President Obama had signed a secret order in April — months earlier than previously reported — authorizing a C.I.A. plan to begin arming the Syrian rebels. But the arms had not been shipped, and the collapse of rebel positions in western Syria fueled the atmosphere of crisis that hung over the June meeting.
Yet after hours of debate in which top advisers considered a range of options, including military strikes and increased support to the rebels, the meeting ended the way so many attempts to define a Syrian strategy had ended in the past, with the president’s aides deeply divided over how to respond to a civil war that had already claimed 100,000 lives.
The State Department’s June warning, laid out in a document obtained by The New York Times, proved to be prophetic. A devastating poison gas attack on Aug. 21 killed hundreds of civilians, touching off a crisis that brought the United States close to launching military strikes in Syria and that ended only when Mr. Obama seized on a Russian-sponsored agreement to secure Syria’s chemical weapons.
There is a token defense of Obama in the piece, using a public statement from the White House spokesman, but the memorable lines are from the President’s critics — a “former senior White House official” says, “We spent so much damn time navel gazing, and that’s the tragedy of it.”
The lengthy article, written by three reporters, recites the history of US debates over intervention from early in the Syrian conflict, including efforts by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and CIA Director David Petraeus in 2012 to get a significant covert program in support of the insurgency.
Obama is always sceptical and cautious, while “at the State Department, some officials were fuming about what they felt was a broken process and a lack of strategy”.
In April, after shifts in opinion among his advisors, the President finally signed a finding which authorised the CIA to begin preparations for the training and arming of small groups of insurgents in Jordan. The decision was presented two months later as America’s first commitment to public supply of weapons to the opposition.
But the weapons were never supplied. Instead, the Assad regime struck with its chemical weapons on August 21, laying down the gauntlet to the Obama Administration to respond.
Ten days later — and only hours after Secretary of State Kerry had indicated the US and allies would soon be launching airstrikes — Obama stepped back, deciding to consult Congress.
And so the pro-intervention officials, including in the State Department, bristle. The Times concludes its narrative:
While the training mission in Jordan continues, officials now say there is no immediate plan to drastically expand it under the Pentagon’s control. The White House appears to be concerned that a public effort might undermine the diplomatic initiative to remove Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles and convene a peace conference.