On the last day of last year, the Wall Street Journal ran a powerful indictment of President Obama’s Syria policy. No, it wasn’t an editorial or op-ed (although the Journal has run plenty of those too). Rather, this was a news article by Adam Entous and Siobhan Gorman, and the indictment was delivered not by the president’s political adversaries but by his own officials, particularly in the intelligence community.
The article explains that the intelligence agencies have retracted their previous assessments that it was only a matter of time before Bashar Assad fell–a staple of the president’s own rhetoric from the start of the full-blown uprising in 2011 until early 2013. No longer. In 2013 Iran and Hezbollah increased their commitment to Assad while the U.S. and its allies made no comparable commitment to the rebels, preferring instead to strike a deal for Assad to give up his chemical weapons–while he goes right on pulverizing the opposition and any civilians unlucky enough to be caught in his indiscriminate attacks. The result:
The intelligence assessments that once showed Mr. Assad on the verge of defeat now say he could remain in power for the foreseeable future in key parts of the country bordering Lebanon and the Mediterranean coast. The U.S. doesn’t think he will be able to retake the whole country again, U.S. intelligence agencies believe. Areas outside his control are fracturing into warring enclaves along ethnic and sectarian lines, abutting a new al Qaeda-affiliated haven that sweeps from Syria into Iraq.
There was nothing inevitable about this division of Syria between Shiite and Sunni extremists, as I have been arguing for some time. It came about because the Iranians went all-in and the U.S. didn’t. As the Journal notes: “Through it all, U.S. intelligence and military officers watched the evolution with alarm from the sidelines, at least one step behind developments on the ground.” Thanks to this American hesitancy and confusion, the article notes, quoting “a longtime American diplomat in the region,” it now looks “like Messrs. Assad, Nasrallah and Soleimani have ‘won’.”
The flip side of a victory for Assad and his patrons in Hezbollah and Tehran is that the U.S. has lost. Obama’s defeat in Syria hasn’t been nearly as costly, at least so far, in American blood or treasure as President Bush’s temporary defeat in Iraq, from 2003 to 2007–but it is likely to prove more enduring and more damaging to American interests in the region because there is no “surge” on the horizon to save the day. In Syria the situation is likely to go from grim to grimmer, and drag down fragile neighboring states, notably Iraq and Lebanon, along with it into the vortex of sectarian bloodletting.