from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Syria: Everyone But Obama Wanted Action

February 7, 2013

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It has emerged in the last few days that Secretary of State Clinton and CIA Director David Petraeus wanted last year to arm and train the Syrian rebels.

The New York Times reported last weekend that

The idea was to vet the rebel groups and train fighters, who would be supplied with weapons. The plan had risks, but it also offered the potential reward of creating Syrian allies with whom the United States could work, both during the conflict and after President Bashar al-Assad’s eventual removal. Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Petraeus presented the proposal to the White House, according to administration officials. But with the White House worried about the risks, and with President Obama in the midst of a re-election bid, they were rebuffed."

Today we learned that the Pentagon also supported this plan. As reported in The Cable,

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey were in favor of the plan last year advocated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and CIA Director David Petraeus to arm the Syrian opposition, Dempsey testified Thursday.

So, every senior member of the national security agencies--the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, the CIA Director, and the Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff--favored action. And the president rejected this unanimous recommendation.

That is his prerogative, of course. One cannot escape the conclusion that electoral politics played a role, as The New York Times’s phrasing suggests. That should be remembered, as should the fact of this unanimous recommendation, when next we hear White House explanations of why the United States cannot and should not act. "It’s too risky; we don’t know who to whom to give the training or arms; it might backfire; they don’t need the arms;" the excuses go on and on. But rather a different light is thrown on those excuses when we learn that if the president believed them, none of his top advisers did.

The Clinton/Petraeus plan was proposed and rejected last summer, the Times reported. In September the top strategist and expert on Syria for the State Department, Fred Hof, the Department’s Special Representative on Syria, resigned. It’s hard to believe that timing is a coincidence.

Hof has, since leaving the government after a long and distinguished career beginning with service in the U.S. Army in Vietnam, written a good deal about Syria.  Here is an excerpt from what he wrote last month in an article entitled "Syria: Is It Too Late?"

It might in fact be too late to save Syria from the diabolical ministrations of Assad and his enabling Salafist enemies....Yet even if one accepted, analytically, the "it’s too late to save Syria" thesis, and the argument that saving Syria was never something the United States and its allies could do, can this be the basis of prudent policy? If Syria, as now appears likely, becomes a death star of failed statehood, will the effects of its ravaged carcass on the surrounding neighborhood be so benign as to present no challenges to US statecraft far more perilous than those presented by Syria now?....Will Americans at that point look back with regret at our reluctance to try to shape and influence when we may at least have had a chance to do so?....

[W]hat if the arm’s length approach to the armed Syrian opposition is precisely the wrong medicine for a patient at or near death’s door? What if an approach seen by its advocates as the very epitome of prudence is in fact the opposite? What if the United States can help shape a decent, civilized outcome in Syria by providing security assistance to select opposition elements, and do so with no US boots on the ground? What if it can help in the context of lethality but consciously elects not to?....Syria’s fate will likely be decided by men with guns. If a firm, irrevocable decision is in place that the United States will not play in this arena, then it may indeed be too late for Syria as the Assad/al-Qaeda tag team crowds out all other opponents from the ring, making Syria ungovernable, 22.5 million Syrians vulnerable, and neighboring states fully exposed to a catastrophe that could persist for decades.

Every president has the right to disregard the advice of his all top advisers. Sometimes it is right to do so. Reading these words from Fred Hof, here the president was and remains tragically wrong.

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