In Syria, America Had No Good Options

When every policy choice was terrible, finding the least bad one became the only way forward.

Syrians walk amid the rubble of destroyed buildings
Syrians walk amid the rubble of destroyed buildings in the rebel-held area of Douma in August 2015. (Abd Doumany / Getty)

“You’re shitting me, right?” I asked Denis McDonough. He was the White House chief of staff, and he was standing in my office doorway on an evening in late August 2013.

“No, I’m serious,” he said. “I was just on my nightly walk with the president, and he thinks we should pause and first go to Congress.”

This article was condensed and adapted from Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For, by Susan Rice.

I was stunned. President Barack Obama had suddenly decided not to order missile strikes on Syria immediately, as planned, but first to get congressional approval for U.S. military action in response to Syria’s horrific use of chemical weapons. Denis said a small group of us would soon gather in the Oval Office to discuss this further with the president. As national security adviser for less than two months, I’d already chaired several National Security Council principals-committee meetings on our response to Syria’s violation of the president’s so-called red line on the use of chemical weapons. Nearly 2,000 people, including many children, had been killed by the Syrian regime in a sarin-gas attack on the Ghouta region. At that point, almost all the NSC principals believed we needed to act militarily to demonstrate to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that he could not violate international law by using deadly gas against civilians without paying a price.

Yet no question was easy with respect to Syria, whose civil war I believe was the hardest policy challenge the Obama administration faced. The news that McDonough had come to relay—that the president had changed his mind—underscored the fundamental dilemma we faced. In Syria, our values and national interests often felt in conflict. Our moral conviction that Assad had to be stopped competed, at virtually every point in the conflict, with the reality that there were only bad options and worse ones.

Several hours earlier, at an NSC meeting that afternoon, the president had approved military targets. We were very close to launching. Our primary impediment was the UN, which needed time to move its personnel out of harm’s way. We had lined up international partners to join our military operation, notably France and the U.K. But Prime Minister David Cameron decided to seek parliamentary approval for this action, and, shockingly, he lost the vote. This was a major setback, but France remained gung ho.

When White House senior advisers gathered that Friday evening in the Oval Office, Obama began with his description of the challenge he aimed to address. We did not have a clearly valid international legal basis for our planned action, he said, but we could argue that the use of banned chemical weapons made our actions legitimate, if not technically legal. Domestically, we could invoke the president’s constitutional authority to use force under Article II, but that would trigger a 60-day clock under the War Powers Act—meaning that if our actions lasted longer than 60 days, he would need to obtain congressional approval to continue military action. Therefore, before we used any significant force in Syria to address its chemical-weapons use, the president thought it best to invest members of Congress in the decision, and through them the American people.

As usual, Obama was thinking several plays down the field—to the potential need for military action against Iran, should diplomacy fail to force that country to give up its still nascent nuclear-weapons program. Once the precedent was established that Congress should act to authorize military action in Syria, we could insist on the same kind of vote should we need to confront Iran—a much higher-risk proposition that he would want Congress to own with us.

I admired the president’s logic, but disagreed with his assumptions. As Obama polled the aides assembled in the Oval, all agreed with him. He called on me last, as he often did in my role as national security adviser.

The lone dissenter, I argued for proceeding with military action, as planned. We had clearly signaled—most recently that morning in a strong speech by Secretary of State John Kerry—that we intended to hold Syria accountable through the use of force. Our military assets were in place. The UN had been warned. Our allies were waiting. As then–Vice President Joe Biden liked to say, “Big countries don’t bluff.” Finally, I invoked the painful history of Rwanda and predicted we could long be blamed for inaction.

Above all, I argued to the president, “Congress won’t grant you the authority.” That was my strong gut instinct. Bitter experience had shown us that Republicans in Congress were so hostile to Obama that they would deny him anything of consequence he requested, even if they believed that what he requested was right. I anticipated that congressional Democrats would splinter, as many did not want to vote for what they feared might become another war of choice in the Middle East. The president listened closely to us all and acknowledged my concerns. He concluded his argument with characteristic aplomb, predicting that we would get the votes in Congress. I was neither a political strategist nor the legislative-affairs director, nor had I been elected president twice. So I rested my case.

The next morning, the president convened his whole national-security cabinet to discuss Syria. Again, he laid out his thinking and polled the room. Everyone professed to agree with his arguments and proposed course of action, though I sensed some were not being fully forthcoming with their true opinions. In the end, I was badly outvoted—as anticipated. So I set about implementing the president’s decision.

President Obama later told me that he was not certain we would prevail in Congress, but thought we had a fighting chance. He foresaw that a night or two of bombing might not change Assad’s calculus and that a more sustained military campaign might be needed to achieve our objectives. Given that reality, Obama felt that even if we might fall short of the needed votes, it was important to try to vest Congress in such a consequential decision to use force. After Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, Congress needed to be on board with such critical choices.

In the meantime, sensing that Russia feared that the United States was on the verge of major military action, Obama pigeonholed Putin on the margins of the G20 summit in St. Petersburg in early September 2013. Obama told Putin he was prepared to use force to punish Assad for deploying chemical weapons, though he remained open to a more permanent negotiated solution, if one could be found, to address Syria’s chemical stockpile. Intrigued, Putin agreed that Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov should discuss possible options. Obama later instructed me to alert Kerry to pursue this prospect with Lavrov.

The U.S. and Russia worked together to compel Assad to declare and relinquish his chemical-weapons stockpile, subject to international verification. Russia vowed to exert the necessary pressure on Assad, and Kerry and Lavrov codified their agreement in a UN Security Council resolution, which threatened sanctions and, by implication, the use of force if Syria failed to comply. The U.S. agreed to hold off bombing until we could see whether or not Assad would fulfill his commitments.

Ultimately, we would fail to garner the necessary support for congressional authorization to use force. Republicans and Democrats had acted precisely as I predicted. But while I turned out to be right about the politics, Obama was right about the policy. Without the use of force, we ultimately achieved a better outcome than I had imagined. The bombing of some discrete chemical-weapons-associated targets—not actual stockpiles, for safety reasons—would have marginally set the Syrian regime back in the short term. It would have sent a message to Assad, but would not have eliminated the vast bulk of his chemical-weapons stockpile or changed the course of Syria’s civil war.

Months later, Syria joined the Chemical Weapons Convention, declared its stockpile of chemical weapons, and shipped them out—some 1,300 metric tons of them—under international supervision. Israel, which was directly threatened by Syrian gas, hailed the action and stopped distributing gas masks throughout the country. Bombing would not have brought about the removal of Syria’s declared stockpile. It was achieved through the credible threat of the use of force and painstaking U.S.-Russia diplomacy.

Unfortunately, this was not the end of the story. While we made a considerable effort to address any gaps and inconsistencies in Syria’s declaration, including by raising such issues with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, we were never fully satisfied that Syria had declared every element of its program. Ultimately, we were never able to point to anything specific enough to prove our suspicions to the OPCW. Or maybe Syria made new sarin gas. What we do know is that in April 2017 and again in April 2018, Syria killed scores more in fresh chemical attacks. In both instances, President Donald Trump dusted off the Obama-era military plans and target list, and struck suspect facilities with cruise missiles and air strikes.

In my view, President Trump was right to act against Assad, who, with Russian complicity, had violated his agreement with the United States and the UN. But Trump’s strikes were divorced from any strategy to leverage the use of American force to catalyze a diplomatic solution. Senior Trump-administration officials issued mixed public messages about the objective of the bombings, which further complicated matters. Ultimately, these U.S. strikes sent a message, but failed to change any facts on the ground. The conflict persisted, and Assad grew stronger while continuing to kill innocents.

In both 2017 and 2018, the United States made clear too quickly that these were short-lived, limited packages of strikes. The Trump administration failed to keep Assad and Russia guessing, limiting its ability to again use the credible threat of force to pursue a diplomatic outcome that addressed our chemical-weapons concerns or brought the conflict closer to conclusion. Syria’s chemical-weapons problem remains unresolved. So, too, does the larger Syria-policy conundrum.

For six years, the Obama administration wrestled painfully and unsuccessfully with Syria. Assad, the murderous dictator, remains hell-bent on regaining full control from rebels who once occupied significant swaths of Syrian territory. He uses whatever vicious means necessary—barrel bombs, chemical weapons, targeting hospitals—to kill hundreds of thousands and cause millions to flee as refugees.

The human costs of his slaughter stung our collective conscience. They also directly implicated U.S. interests by driving destabilizing refugee flows into fragile states such as Jordan and Lebanon, as well as Turkey, and further afield to Europe, which has not recovered politically or socially from the shock of the inflow. The active intervention of Hezbollah, Iran, and later Russia dramatically worsened the conflict, aiding Assad but also threatening Israel. Terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, exploited the chaos to establish safe havens from which they planned attacks on the West. It was a complete horror show that only got worse with time. At every stage, the dilemma for the Obama administration was how deeply to involve the U.S. in trying to topple Assad and stop the bloodshed and refugee flows.

The gap between our rhetorical policy and our actions constantly bedeviled U.S. policy making. In August 2011, several months after the start of the Syrian uprising and in the midst of the Libya operation, Obama joined our key European partners in declaring that “the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” But having learned the lessons of regime change in Iraq, and sobered by the complexity of sustaining even an air campaign in Libya, no principal argued for direct military intervention with U.S. ground troops to force out Assad, as President George W. Bush had done to Saddam Hussein. The costs in blood and treasure to the U.S. were massive in Iraq. Syria would be just as bad, if not worse, given Iran’s strong backing. Once Russia put its forces into Syria in September 2015, any effort at regime change could have courted World War III.

But we did consider and reconsider, again and again, many significant steps short of direct war against Assad. We imposed what U.S. and European sanctions we could, but absent UN Security Council authority, which Russia consistently blocked, comprehensive global sanctions were not achievable. We provided almost $6 billion in humanitarian assistance to the victims of Syria’s conflict and more to the neighboring states coping with the burden. We spent untold amounts of senior-level energy trying to negotiate with Russia, Syria, and other key players to end the conflict peacefully. At various points, we tried to exploit potential diplomatic openings, but none ever came to fruition.

After more than a year of intense internal debate, Obama decided in 2013 to join our Sunni Arab and Turkish partners in vetting, arming, and later training Syrian rebels. The challenge we continually faced, however, was that some of the rebels were genuine political opponents of Assad, while others were members of lethal terrorist groups. Still others were somewhere in between. The terrorist groups, such as the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front, were the best anti-Assad fighters, but we would never assist them. The difficulty was how to help the good guys, and those in the gray area, without inadvertently providing sophisticated weapons and training to terrorists.

We tried to walk that fine line. But the rebels were fractured and lacked a coherent, achievable political agenda. The assistance we provided was significant, but not as much as the rebels wanted and arguably needed. We did not do the maximum, because we assessed that the long-term risks of passing the most dangerous weapons to rebels in a murky war zone outweighed the benefits. While the U.S.-supported rebels fought as best they could, they were unlikely ever to threaten the regime’s survival without direct U.S. military intervention.

Within the Obama national-security team, the principals fought over Syria longer and harder than on any issue during my tenure. John Kerry, John Brennan, and Samantha Power argued for the U.S. to do more—provide more lethal weapons to the rebels, take targeted strikes against Assad or his air force, and perhaps establish safe zones for civilians. Others—including me and Denis McDonough, Defense Secretary Ash Carter, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey and his successor, Joe Dunford—were equally tortured by the suffering in Syria, but opposed deeper U.S. military involvement.

I didn’t see a feasible middle ground. Ordering limited strikes to punish Assad for using chemical weapons was one thing; assuming a larger role in Syria’s civil war would be something else entirely. If we took action that directly targeted Assad or his military, we would be at war with him, Iran, and ultimately Russia. If we set up a no-fly zone or safe zones on the ground, we were buying a costly, dangerous, lengthy, and uncertain military commitment on top of Afghanistan and Iraq that put significant numbers of U.S. forces in harm’s way. Could we have protected civilians in safe zones? Yes, had we deployed thousands of U.S. troops to take and hold the ground and committed roughly 100 planes to provide air coverage. But would that have toppled Assad? That was unlikely even before Russia intervened in September 2015.

As pained as we felt, as much as our values were offended, and as amoral the decision not to intervene directly in Syria’s civil war seemed, I believe it was also the right choice for the totality of U.S. interests. Obama agonized over Syria constantly, but repeatedly reached the same conclusion. Many people I respect disagree strongly with that judgment, but in retrospect, I cannot say that I would have done much differently—except perhaps to have avoided declaratory statements such as “Assad must go” or red lines, as on chemical weapons that raised expectations for actions that may not have served U.S. interests. In the same vein, I question the wisdom of arming and training the Syrian rebels, since the level of our support was not sufficient to create more than a temporary stalemate, before Russian intervention tilted the conflict in Assad’s favor.

My heart and my conscience will forever ache over Syria. Since Rwanda, my bias has been in favor of action in the face of mass atrocities—when the risks to U.S. interests are not excessive. In contrast to Libya, where I strongly supported military intervention, I could see no version of U.S. intervention in Syria that we should have conducted—except very limited strikes to respond to chemical-weapons use. For instance, strikes against Assad’s air force, as some advocated, would not have been one-off endeavors. To sustainably degrade his military capacity, given Assad’s external backing and robust air defenses, would have required a long-term air campaign against a far-better-equipped and more sophisticated army than Qaddafi’s. But even still, only U.S. ground forces deployed before Russia intervened could have reliably stopped Assad’s deadly ground war against the rebels. This likely would have amounted to another Iraq-scale invasion. Although I acknowledge the very high costs of limiting our actions and am neither content nor proud to admit it, I believe we were correct not to become more deeply involved militarily in the Syrian civil war.

Copyright © 2019 by SERice LLC. From the forthcoming book Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For by Susan Rice, to be published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.