WASHINGTON – During a series of crisis meetings on Syria throughout the course of the conflict there, as it slowly turned from an Arab Spring uprising to a fractious civil war, US President Barack Obama’s national security team presented him with new, powerful tools that would ground the air force of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad and effectively turn his lights out: cyber weapons, never before used on the battlefield.
In a New York Times report published Monday and written by David Sanger, who last year released enterprising coverage in that paper on covert US cyber operations against Iran, senior administration officials confirm that the president turned down those cyber attack options against Assad, fearing the precedent their use might set in future conflicts should he proceed.
While an advanced attack would not completely debilitate Assad – he has off the grid capabilities that would remain intact – it would significantly cripple his ability to conduct air-strikes, of the like he has repeatedly ordered against highly populated civilian areas.
The National Security Council met last week to review options on how the administration might handle the Syrian crisis going forward, officials say.
Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the National Security Council, would not confirm the meeting to The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday. But she said that NSC meetings on Syria are “not a new process.”
“In any situation, the president always wants to have options, and as we have made clear, we are constantly looking at every possible avenue to solve this problem,” Hayden said.
“We remain committed to trying to resolve this conflict, but in a way that doesn’t insert the United States back into a bloody conflict in the Middle East.”
In speeches delivered throughout his presidency, Obama’s secretaries of state, defense and homeland security have repeatedly warned that the US remains vulnerable to cyber attacks. The president is wary that open cyber warfare in Syria may invite retaliatory strikes from Assad’s government, or his allies in Iran and Russia.
“We have been clear that there are a range of tools we have at our disposal to protect our national security, including cyber,” Hayden said. “The president signed a classified presidential directive relating to cyber operations that establishes principles and processes so that cyber tools are integrated with the full array of national security tools.”
Outlining a new defense budget on Monday, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said the country needed to boost spending on cyber warfare technology at the expense of traditional military systems and services.
“We chose further reductions in troop strength and force structure in every military service – active and reserve – in order to sustain our readiness and technological superiority and to protect critical capabilities like special operations forces and cyber resources,” Hagel said.
The sparse, yet highly public use of cyber tools in warfare and espionage have thus far portrayed the US in a negative light, from when Sanger pointed out Operation Olympic Games – a notorious cyber effort, supposedly in cooperation with Israel, to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program – to PRISM, a controversial dragnet surveillance program operated by the National Security Agency.
Some argue the use of cyber tactics in Syria could ameliorate that image, executing hi-tech American power for a humanitarian cause. And yet the gap between America’s cyber capabilities and those of its foes is smaller than the gap between its traditional military might and that of its traditional adversaries.
Hayden echoed comments made by National Security Advisor Susan Rice on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday, where the former UN ambassador warned of the fragmentation of the Syrian state.
The president still demands Assad leave power, Hayden said.
But it is also "critical that the institutions of the Syrian state remain intact.”
“We don’t want to see the state fragment,” she said.