The Failure of Obama's Syria Policy

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The administration needs to chart a new course in dealing with the country's destructive civil war. Don't expect one anytime soon.

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A Free Syrian Army member walks down a debris-filled street in Aleppo's Salaheddine district on February 19, 2013. (Abdalghne Karoof/Reuters)

Typhoid and hepatitis outbreaks are spreading. An estimated 70,000 people are dead, and another 850,000 are refugees. After covering the battle for Damascus for a month, Reuters photographer Goran Tomasevic declared the situation a "bloody stalemate" earlier this week.

"I watched both sides mount assaults, some trying to gain just a house or two, others for bigger prizes, only to be forced back by sharpshooters, mortars or sprays of machine-gun fire," Tomasevic, a gifted and brave photographer, wrote in a chilling first-hand account. "As in the ruins of Beirut, Sarajevo or Stalingrad, it is a sniper's war."

The Obama administration's policy toward Syria is a failure. Iran, Hezbollah and Russia are funneling more aid, armaments and diplomatic cover to Bashar al-Assad. And Syrian rebels who once hailed the United States now loathe it.

The administration's fear of inadvertently arming jihadists is paralyzing our efforts and limiting our options.

Across the country, pro-Assad forces use airplanes, Scud ballistic missiles and artillery to level rebel-controlled neighborhoods. Meanwhile,  Syrian insurgents fight with the tragi-comic "D.I.Y. weapons" displayed in this Atlantic slide show.

In an incisive essay published this week in the London Review of Books, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, a journalist with the Guardian, described the continued atomization of the Syrian opposition. Abdul-Ahad, an Iraqi who covered the dissolution of his own nation, freely admits that "we in the Middle East have always had a strong appetite for factionalism." But then he delivers a damning description of how prevarication in Washington creates deepening anti-Americanism among the rebels.

"Why are the Americans doing this to us?" one rebel commander demands. "They told us they wouldn't send us weapons until we united. So we united in Doha. Now what's their excuse?"

In the meantime, hard-line jihadists and their funders in the Persian Gulf are filling the void.

"Maybe we should all become jihadis," the exasperated commander declares. "Maybe then we'll get money and support."

The time has come for the Obama administration to mount a new policy in Syria. But don't expect one anytime soon.

In an interview on Thursday, a senior administration official played down a report in the The New York Times Monday that President Barack Obama might reconsider arming Syria's opposition. The official confirmed that Obama rejected a proposal last year from four of his top national security advisers that the U.S. arm the rebels.

But he said a subsequent review by American intelligence officials had concluded that only a large infusion of sophisticated weaponry would tip the military balance against the Assad regime.

"We have to assess what it would take to change the calculus," the official said, "and hasten the transition."

Repeating prior arguments, the official said the administration opposed supplying the rebels with anti-aircraft missiles out of concern that the weapons could fall into the hands of jihadists.

"God forbid a U.S. weapon be used to strike an Israeli passenger plane or land in Israel,"  said the official, who asked not to be named.

The problem, though, is that jihadists are becoming the most influential and well-armed insurgents in Syria. The London Review of Books essay, "How to Start a Battalion in Five Easy Lessons," begins with a description of a rebel commander withdrawing his fighters from an important defensive position in Aleppo because a donor in the Gulf is willing to provide him with more funds and weapons.

"He says he will pay for our ammunition and we get to keep all the spoils of the fighting," the rebel commander says. "We just have to supply him with videos."

Meanwhile, assistance to the Assad regime is growing. A New Yorker piece published this week detailed stepped-up military aid from Hezbollah.

"If Bashar goes down," one Hezbollah commander told the magazine, "we're next."

And the White House official called the extent of Iranian assistance to Assad "stunning."

"They are all in," the official said. "They are doing everything they can to support the Assad regime and are putting in enormous amounts of arms and individuals."

Why, then, isn't the United States even partly in?

In the London Review piece, rebels complained that the United States was blocking countries in the region from providing sophisticated antiaircraft and antitank missiles to them. The White House official denied that was true, said the armed opposition remained deeply divided and the situation was confused on the ground.

He said the administration was trying to learn from the past, particularly Iraq.

"The United States has a long history of picking winners and losers based on the guy who speaks English well," the official said. "It's just trying to learn the lessons and be humble. We don't have perfect visibility into the situation. Interjecting that forcefully in an armed way has huge risk."

Learning is important, but the current approach is failing. Our fear of inadvertently arming jihadists is paralyzing our efforts and limiting our options. There are no simple solutions in Syria but we are missing a strategic opportunity to weaken Iran and Hezbollah.

If we do not wish to arm groups ourselves, we should allow Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to fully do so. Supplying rebels with sophisticated anti-tank missiles and other conventional weapons, not surface-to-air missiles, could help turn the tide. And if we are serious about a diplomatic effort, we must redouble our efforts instead of deferring yet again to false Russian promises.

Two years after the uprising began as a non-violent protest movement, the death toll in Syria is approaching the roughly 100,000 dead of Iraq and Bosnia. While it may not have a political cost in Washington, the White House is sending a clear message across the Middle East: American and Israeli lives matter, not Syrian ones. The figure is 70,000 and counting. That number will come back to haunt us.


This post also appears at Reuters.com, an Atlantic partner site.

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David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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