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The Implosion of Obama’s Syria Strategy

For President Barack Obama, the deteriorating situation in Syria has always been a political problem rather than a pressing national security challenge. When the president was faced with a regime that flouted international norms and precedents by using chemical weapons, he set a “red line” for action that failed to deter Syria’s Bashar al-Assad from continuing along his destabilizing course. Even while amassing international and domestic support for intervention in Syria, Obama was groping for a way out of the trap he had set for himself – a way that he was provided by Assad’s duplicitous patrons in Moscow. When the Islamic State militancy exploded out of its Syrian cradle, Obama only reluctantly began to address the threat to the region posed by the then fully metastatic Syrian crisis. By crafting two distinct international coalitions to fight the same war on two sides of an arbitrary Middle Eastern border that no longer existed, Obama signaled his lack of seriousness in combating the extremist threat in the Levant. But the core of Obama’s scheme to limit American involvement in the war on ISIS, his Rube Goldberg proposal for creating an indigenous Syrian army to fight ISIS, was the most laughable element of his strategic approach to avoiding a new entanglement. It should be abundantly clear today that this White House has no interest in prosecuting this war or achieving realistic and realizable goals. 

“Those inside the administration advocating for going after ISIS in both Iraq and Syria were sorely disappointed – and lamented their boss’s lack of urgency in rooting out a threat that only days before was being described in near-apocalyptic terms,” The Daily Beast’s Josh Rogin and Eli Lake reported in the summer of 2014, nearly a year after the president had accepted the terms of an arrangement that supposedly stripped Assad’s regime of chemical weaponry. “The meeting was the culmination of an intense week-long process that included series of lower level meetings and at last one Principals’ Committee that officials described as an effort to convince Obama to expand his air war against ISIS in Iraq to Syria as well. But before the meeting even started, the president seemed to have made up his mind.”

Inevitably, though, the president did lend America’s diplomatic weight to the mission of creating an international coalition dominated by Arab states. That coalition would lend legitimacy to the air war targeting ISIS positions inside Syria to which he reluctantly committed American military power. But in order to keep Western “boots” off of Syrian soil, the White House devised an absurdly complex process through which the West’s engagement in Syria could be reduced. That strategy consisted of identifying combat-ready rebel groups inside Syria that are willing to fight ISIS but were relatively secular and unlikely to turn on their Western backers once the Islamic State had been routed. From there, those fighters identified as good candidates would be transported out of Syria, sent to a third-party country in the region, trained, equipped, and reintroduced into the Syrian theater.

The Pentagon estimated in December of last year, two months after this strategy was approved by Congress, it would take up to one year from the beginning of the process and no fewer than 15,000 fighters to complete the job, although only 5,000 would be needed at the start. More than six months later, it should be abundantly clear that the administration has no interest in combating ISIS in Syria. Of those initial 5,000 Syrian rebels necessary to dislodge the Islamic State, Defense Sec. Ashton Carter confessed that only 60 individuals have so far been identified and are being trained.

“This number is much smaller than we’d hoped for at this point, partly because of the vetting standards,” Carter conceded in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “But we know this program is essential.”

“We need a partner on the ground in Syria to ensure ISIL’s lasting defeat,” he continued. “And as training progresses, we’re learning more about the opposition groups and building important relationships which increases our ability to attract recruits and provides valuable intelligence for counter-ISIL operations.”

This revelation comes on the heels of a press conference in which the president told Pentagon reporters that he would order an intensification of the anti-ISIS air campaign over Syria. In that press conference, Obama touted the fact that ISIS was losing some territory to assaults from indigenous groups, but nearly all that progress is due to the work of Kurdish forces inside Syria. They have grown increasingly suspicious of both this White House and the supposedly moderate Arab rebel militias that the administration has sought to elevate.

“In the lead-up to the mainly Kurdish capture of the Syrian border town of Tal Abayad last month, Islamic extremists panicked the town’s Arab population by warning that fighters with the YPG, People’s Protection Units, which are dominated by Syria’s Democratic Union Party (PYD), would run amok,” read a recent Voice of America report. “This prompted thousands of Arab residents to flee to Turkey.”

“Some circles are trying to ignite a Kurdish-Arab military conflict,” one PYD leader told VOA reporters. These tensions are growing increasingly acute as Kurdish fighters expel ISIS from territory in Syria’s north and establish a proto-Kurdistan on Turkey’s border.

The administration has most likely allowed the window in which it would have been feasible to arm and train an effective, secular indigenous force that could combat ISIS. If it has not, the current rate at which rebel combatants are being readied for the fight is preposterously cautious. At present, the administration’s anti-ISIS strategy is maturing at a rate slow enough to instill mistrust in those forces that are supposed to be the West’s ally in this fight, and it is likely making the next president’s job in the Middle East that much harder.

 



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