How Obama crossed his own line on Syria

While Obama consistently cautious about US involvement in Syria, his team has been less than unified.

June 15, 2013 08:03
US President Barack Obama

US President Barack Obama in NY 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Larry Downing)

And for now, Washington is not backing the establishment of a "no-fly zone" over Syria, which would involve a major commitment of US and European air power to counter Syria's extensive air defenses, they said, in part because there is no international consensus on the step.

"This is, in a way, a low-cost option," a former US official with extensive contacts in the region said of the White House's new steps, worrying that the US military aid was months too late.

The White House and State Department declined to publicly detail what sorts of weaponry and other materiel will be sent to the rebels, or how quickly it will arrive.


While Obama has been consistently cautious about US involvement in Syria, his team has been at times less than unified.

Obama's original decision, in August 2011, to call on Assad to leave power, was preceded by intense debate in Washington, London and other capitals, according to diplomats and former officials.

The Pentagon has been consistent in opposing deep US military involvement, such as a no-fly zone.

Last fall, however, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and CIA chief David Petraeus presented a joint proposal for the United States to arm the rebels. The White House turned down the idea.

In the current situation, Secretary of State John Kerry is said to have been active in pressing Obama on the need to do more.

"The constituency within the administration for doing more is much more significant that it was in the past," said Dennis Ross, who was a senior Middle East adviser to Obama. "But the hesitancy remains, I believe."

Ross, who left government in December 2011, said that during his time at the White House, Obama would closely question the wisdom and consequences of Syria options presented by his advisers.

"What's fair to say, he wanted to be very cautious about the kinds of commitments we would make, he wanted to know even then, look if we're going to take steps, I want to hear, tell me where that leads to," Ross said in an interview this week. "Tell me what's the consequence of doing 'X'. And tell me how that is going to improve the situation and make an outcome that we favor more likely."

Ross said that during his time at the Obama White House, the US experience in recent wars, which highlighted the difficulty in changing conditions in Islamic countries, weighed heavily in the president's thinking.

"I don't think you can look at it independently from Iraq and Afghanistan. And particularly the sense that these are easy to get into and hard to get out of," Ross said.

Obama's calculus would have been different, he added, if there had been a "more coherent, more credible and more compelling" opposition in Syria.

A senior Western diplomatic source gave a similar account, saying Obama essentially tells his aides to prove to him that American intervention would improve the situation.

"It's a legitimate position," this source said. "I don't see at this point the Americans authorizing the delivery of heavy weapons."

It remains to be seen whether the aid will change a military picture that has seen Assad's forces, backed by Hezbollah fighters, steadily regain ground against the rebels, capturing the key city of Qusair and preparing for an assault on rebel-held areas of northern Syria.

"We believe that we can make a difference," White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said, when asked if the US aid was too little. He noted that Arab nations and Turkey are also supporting the Syrian opposition.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Obama's decision was made some days ago, but would not be more specific.

"This has been something that the national security team and the president has been discussing for weeks. I know the White House said the president decided long before this week," Psaki said.  the Department of Defense.

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