Last week, an internal State Department memo criticizing the administration’s Syria policy was leaked to the press. Fifty-one American officials variously involved with Middle East policy signed a letter calling for military action against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. “A judicious use of stand-off and air weapons,” reads the document, to “undergird and drive a more focused and hard-nosed U.S.-led diplomatic process.”
The point of military action is not to topple Assad militarily, but rather to earn the United States a better negotiating position at the table with Assad’s patrons, Iran and Russia. In other words, the State Department signatories understand that without a show of force, they have a weak hand vis-à-vis Moscow and Tehran, which back their client with money as well as arms and their own troops. In effect, they’re petitioning for the same policy John Kerry has routinely advised since he became Secretary of State—it is only by showing a willingness to take military action that the United States can earn a strong bargaining position. Obama told Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic magazine that he has shot down Kerry’s proposals repeatedly, and thus it was no surprise that in the wake of last week’s State Department letter, the White House immediately rejected the possibility of any change in Syria policy.
Why is that? Because Barack Obama doesn’t want to negotiate for Assad’s removal. Kerry and career foreign service officers may think it desirable to get rid of Assad, but the Russians don’t. Neither do the Iranians, and Obama’s foreign policy legacy, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, depends greatly on whether or not Iran abides by the deal or crashes it.
The diplomats merit some credit for challenging the policies of the president they serve, even if their rebuke comes late, more than five years after the conflict went hot, and with only seven months remaining in Obama’s term. Other administration officials resigned when they could no longer countenance the White House’s Syria policy. Robert Ford, named ambassador to Damascus in 2010, which broke the isolation the Bush administration imposed on the Assad regime, left in quiet protest in 2014. Fredric Hof, a State Department adviser on Syria, resigned in 2012 and has become an outspoken critic of administration policy for the last four years.
Those State Department officials who stayed on may have convinced themselves that only their continued presence prevented the implementation of an even more disastrous Syria policy. Presumably that’s what’s kept Ambassador Samantha Power at the United Nations, even as the administration’s policy cannot help but embarrass the author of a book discussing American policymakers’ complicity in genocide, and even though, according to the Atlantic article, Obama has belittled her in front of colleagues. Still, no one at the State Department can have been confused about the nature and purpose of the White House’s Syria policy, since the general shape of it has been apparent for quite some time.
Tony Badran, research fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, has documented the administration’s policy since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, which has now cost close to half a million Syrian lives. Since 2011, Badran’s analysis has proven to be an indispensable guide to understanding what is developing on the ground in Syria and deciphering White House policy.
As early as 2012, Badran recognized that by emphasizing the need to preserve “state institutions” in Syria, the administration tipped its hand, showing that it had no interest in removing Assad. Even as the White House called publicly for Assad’s departure, it ruled out a military solution and called for a “national unity” government with regime elements, a proposal consistent with its earlier insistence on preserving “state institutions,” a euphemism that signaled to Assad that Obama meant him no harm.
Although allies chafed at the White House’s Syria policy, which even downplayed allies’ intelligence regarding Assad’s use of chemical weapons, Obama openly told them that the White House was not looking to help the opposition win what he called in his 2013 address at the United Nations General Assembly “someone else’s civil war.”
As Badran explained in April 2013, Obama was overseeing a radical rupture with past American policy in the Middle East. His decisions in Syria from the beginning of the conflict were all geared toward clinching the nuclear deal with Iran, which Obama feared he might lose if he sought to topple Assad. Accordingly, the White House eliminated alternative courses of action that would force Assad out and re-conceptualized the Syrian conflict such that it no longer saw Assad and his Iranian allies as the central problem which needed to be solved in order to stop the bleeding. Rather, as Obama saw it, the strategic threat to the United States in Syria was not the state sponsor of terror marching toward a nuclear bomb and helping Assad slaughter hundreds of thousands of Sunni Arabs, but rather ISIS.
As some analysts were arguing that the administration’s policy was “largely one of avoidance,” driven by President Obama’s resolve to not get involved in another civil war in the Middle East, Badran argued that the White House’s strategic vision was centered on détente with Iran and integrating Tehran into a new regional framework.
Badran showed how Obama, based on his quest for accommodation with Iran, was looking to apply the same template he used in Iraq to Syria. From this point of view, Iran cannot—indeed, should not—be defeated in Syria. Rather, following the Iraqi blueprint, Syrian Sunnis should be grafted onto an Iranian-backed edifice. The Sunni opposition was allowed only to fight the Islamic State, and forbidden from taking on the Iranian axis that was killing their family members and friends. That is to say, Obama’s solution in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon is accommodation with Iran. This put Israel on the opposite side of the United States in Syria, where Obama sees Iran as a legitimate stakeholder and partner against ISIS.
If some regional allies thought that by joining the anti-ISIS coalition, they could help steer the White House’s Syria policy to accommodate their interest in removing Assad, Obama shot them down. In a 2014 press conference, Obama was asked whether the administration was “actively discussing ways to remove [Assad] as a part of [a] political transition,” he answered with a flat “No.”
In 2015, Badran argued that the administration’s longstanding emphasis on “preserving regime institutions” and its mantra that there was “only a political solution” to the Syrian conflict, ensured that White House policy would have to lead, sooner or later, to an accommodation with Assad, as well as the Syrian despot’s enablers—not just Iran, the fulcrum of Obama’s Syria policy, but also Russia.
After the JCPOA was signed last July, Badran contended that one unspoken aspect of the deal was American recognition of Iran’s spheres of influence in the region. Whereas America’s traditional allies regard Tehran’s mini states as the fundamental problem, the White House sees it differently. Not only did the JCPOA institutionalize Obama acquiescence to Iran’s status as a threshold nuclear power, it also recognizes Iranian zones in the Levant as legitimate spheres of influence. Badran describes Obama’s conviction that once America’s traditional regional allies acknowledge, like the White House, Iranian equities in Syria, a new regional equilibrium will take hold. However, as Badran argued, there can be no balancing of interests in Syria between the old pro-American camp and Iran.
As Badran’s brilliant analysis and commentary shows, Obama’s Syria policy has been out in the open for five years, and nothing has changed since then. It’s hard not to feel some compassion for the State Department officials who signed the letter and seem not to understand exactly what’s happened on their watch. They didn’t believe their eyes, not even after Hof and Ford left.
Insofar as foreign service officers tasked to the Near East Affairs division are accustomed to hearing all manner of conspiracy theories, they likely dismissed the concerns of traditional allies as typically feverish symptoms. “No,” they must have answered their counterparts in Riyadh, Amman, Ankara, Jerusalem, Abu Dhabi, “the president is not handing the Levant over to the Iranians. He just doesn’t want to get America caught in the middle of another Middle East war. The way to peace is through diplomacy, not gunfire.”
However, experience shows that often the way to get to diplomacy is through gunfire, especially when one’s negotiating partners never come to the table without their guns. That’s all the letter was meant to signal. Iran and Russia are already “stakeholders,” and no one at Foggy Bottom wants to take that away from them. The State Department just wanted a little bit of an angle, some method to get something out of Russia and Iran as they enforce their position in what used to be an American stronghold.
Of course the rational position, the policy that would advance American interests and those of our allies, is to decapitate the Syrian regime. What’s wrong with ousting Bashar al-Assad? It stops a brutal campaign of sectarian cleansing of Sunni Arabs, and it ends a refugee crisis that’s destabilizing American allies in the Middle East and now Europe, too. Killing Assad would also put Iran and Russia on notice—America stands by its allies and its principles, and Moscow and Tehran can go to hell.
In telling the State Department that he wouldn’t even contemplate strikes to enhance America’s diplomatic position, Obama simply confirmed what he’s been doing for five years—the opposite of ousting Assad. Rather, to keep Assad’s patrons happy, he is promising the Syrian despot more life, even as he bleeds the country he once ruled dry.