White House is Weighing a Syria
By Josh Rogin and Eli Lake
October 9, 2015
A week into Russia's military
intervention in Syria, some top White House advisers and National Security
Council staffers are trying to persuade President Barack Obama to scale back
U.S. engagement there, to focus on lessening the violence and, for now, to give
up on toppling the Syrian regime.
In addition, administration
officials and Middle East experts on both sides of the debate tell us, Obama's
foreign-policy team no longer doubts that Russian President Vladimir Putin
intends to prop up President Bashar al-Assad and primarily target opposition
groups other than the Islamic State, including those trained by the Central
The administration came to this
conclusion late. Despite warnings from U.S. intelligence agencies that Putin's
military buildup was intended to keep Assad in power, the White House
nonetheless decided to
explore cooperating with Russia on the ground. Throughout the summer
and into the fall, top Russian officials -- including Putin himself in a meeting
last month with Obama at the U.N. -- said they were not committed to keeping
Assad in power for the long term, and would only target Islamic State fighters
in their military offensive, according to U.S. officials.
These officials no longer believe
Russia was telling the truth. Reuters reported this week that Putin was planning
his Syria intervention for
months with Iranian officials, while misleading the West. Now any hope
that the U.S. and Russia could work together on stabilizing Syria has ended.
At the same time, Obama has ruled
out engaging in a proxy war with Putin's military, leaving few good options. One
path, however, would mean finding ways to tamp down the fighting by negotiating
small, local ceasefires with the Assad regime.
“The White House somehow thinks
we can de-escalate the conflict while keeping Assad in power,” one senior
administration official told us.
That view, being pushed by top
White House National Security staffers, including senior coordinator for the
Middle East Rob Malley,is
not new. But it has received fresh emphasis given Russian intervention.
If Assad is staying and there’s
no political process in sight, this argument goes, the U.S. might as well focus
on alleviating the suffering of the Syrian people and mitigate the growing
Local ceasefires have been struck
sporadically throughout the war, mostly in areas under siege by the Assad
regime. The United Nations special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has
been pushing this idea for over a year.
“The current policy of the
United States and its partners, to increase pressure on Assad so that he
‘comes to the table’ and negotiates his own departure, must be rethought,”
Malley’s predecessor at the National Security Council, Philip Gordon, wrote at
Politico as Russia was amassing its forces in Syria.
The NSC view is opposed by top
officials in other parts of the government, especially Secretary of State John
Kerry and U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power. They are trying to persuade
Obama that the only way to solve Syria is to increase the pressure on Assad in
the hopes he will enter negotiations.
Yet Kerry and Power now find
themselves without any hope that Putin might bring the Syrian regime to the
table. Kerry, though always skeptical of Russia, has been the point man on
engaging the Russian government through several conversations with Foreign
Minister Sergei Lavrov. But it’s now clear the Russians were leading the Obama
administration down the primrose path.
“In Syria, much as it did in
Ukraine, Russia has hidden its true intentions, using the ruse of joining the
fight against ISIL to provide cover for Russia’s military intervention to prop
up the Assad regime,” Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Democrat Jack
Reed said Thursday. “Russia’s actions, however, increasingly expose their
The de-escalation and
delay-Assad’s-departure approach pushed by Malley and Gordon “has always
been on the table. It is fully operative now,” former State Department
official Frederic Hof wrote in response to Gordon's Politico article. The
problem, he said, is that it won’t work because “neither the regime, nor
Tehran, nor Moscow have demonstrated any interest in it.”
White House spokesperson Emily
Horne told us that there has been no change in the administration’s position
that Assad must go, while also noting that top officials, including Kerry, have
publicly acknowledged that the timetable is negotiable. The U.S. is always
looking for ways to diminish the violence there, she added: “This is not in
any way a substitute or change in our longstanding policy of pressing for a
political transition in Syria.”
Other officials told us that while
U.S. still has programs in place to aid the moderate opposition, top members of
the administration who have been pushing for more of that support, or for the
establishment of safe zones in Syria, are increasingly frustrated with the White
House’s reluctance. This group included Kerry and General John Allen, the
outgoing special envoy to the anti-Islamic State coalition.
Putin's intervention has had the
U.S. flummoxed from day one. As the Russian military moved into Syria, U.S.
intelligence officials tell us, the intelligence community was skeptical that it
intended to focus its military campaign on the Islamic State. Even so, as the
New York Times reported,
the U.S. was surprised by the speed with which Russia built and then announced
its new coalition with the governments of Syria, Iran and Iraq to support its
U.S. intelligence officials also
told us that while they mistrusted Russian intentions, they did not specifically
predict that rebel groups supported by the CIA, such as Tajamu al-Ezzah, would
be among the first targets of the air campaign, or that Russian jets would
encroach into Turkish air space and lock radar on Turkish jets. Yet both those
things happened, and now Congressional oversight committees arereportedly
investigating potential intelligence failures before Russia's
Nevertheless, in those opening
days, top White House officials publicly downplayed the Russian actions. “They
had a base in Syria. This is not new,” Deputy National Security Advisor for
Communications Ben Rhodes said
Oct. 1. “Everybody is looking at Putin as if this is some sort of
In a press conference the next
day, Obama said he believed Russia was making a strategic mistake by deepening
its support for Assad, but emphasized that he would not increase U.S. military
intervention in Syria, calling his critics’ ideas “half-baked” and
Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Chairman Bob Corker told us this week that by not doing more to confront
Putin’s escalation, the administration is tacitly admitting it will no longer
be able to secure Assad’s ouster.
“The very acts over the last 10
days dramatically change the position of the two sides relative to the
negotiations and certainly stake out the fact that from the Russian and Iranian
perspective, which we are not going to challenge, that Assad is there for a
while,” he said.
Brian Katulis, a Middle East
fellow at the Center for American Progress, told us that Obama’s reluctance to
confront the Russians in Syria is symptomatic of his overall reluctance to
embroil America in another costly and bloody war in the Middle East.
“If that’s your guiding
principle, it helps explain why they might look for a positive initially in what
Russia’s doing,” he said. “The end result is a policy that doesn’t shift
in any direction despite the changes in the environment.”
Caught between two camps in his
administration, Obama may not end up shifting the U.S. approach to Syria at all,
although the de-escalation side has the momentum. Either way, as Russia, Iran
and the Syrian regime change facts on the ground, the relative position of
America and the Syrians it has supported becomes graver by the day.