Obama, Assad and the Syria Conundrum

January 28, 2015 Updated: April 23, 2016

The current US policy in Syria reflects the how mindful the Obama administration is of Saddam Hussein, the invasion that ended his 24 year rule in Iraq and the impending chaos that ensued.  President Obama’s Syria policy has been victim to harsh criticism and vehement disagreement dating back to 2013.  Ever since the infamous “red line” proclamation where President Obama chose not to strike Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for his use of chemical weapons against civilians, the debate has focused on the Assad regime’s legitimacy.

Astonishing reports this week reveal the tentativeness of the Obama administration in Syria.  The US has focused much of their military resources against combating the Islamic State group and members of al-Qaeda who purportedly relocated to Syria to plan external operations.  Despite numerous orations from the president that Assad has lost legitimacy, Obama’s policies have not matched his rhetoric.

The CIA has offered very little in arms to certain vetted rebel groups in Syria.  One commander was given the equivalent of 16 bullets per soldier for a month while others were forced to turn in their spent anti-tank equipment before being supplied fresh replacements.  Some of the most trusted Syrian rebel commanders only received five to twenty percent of the arms they requested from the US.  The CIA has also begun to tighten their budget, cutting off funds to certain rebel brigades.

The optics of these constraints are having a direct effect on the battlefield.  It is no secret many Syrian rebel groups enjoy tactical alliances and relationships with more extreme groups.  The Wall Street Journal reported, “Most CIA-backed fighters made $100 to $150 a month. Commanders made slightly more. Islamic State and [Jabhat al] Nusra often paid twice as much, making it harder for the trusted commanders to retain fighters.”  These extremist groups also provide greater quantities of lethal arms much more quickly than does the US.

Jabhat al-Nusra has gone to great lengths from their initial incursion and establishment into Syria to win the hearts and minds of those on the ground.  Coalition bombings near Nusra positions have gained the disapproval of many rebel groups because Nusra is viewed as an ally in the greater fight against Assad.

Several members of Congress have described the dearth of support to Syrian rebels as “disgraceful.”  The death toll in Syrian is now over 200,000 with millions displaced.  The Obama administration has set its sights on non-state actors with anti-US rhetoric.  Conversely, the Assad regime poses no threat to the administration.  However, the Assad regime’s mere existence, according to several experts, poses a sort of second hand threat to the US as “[t]he continuation of Assad’s rule is a beacon for global jihadists.”

Reports in November indicated the president requested his national security team to reevaluate the strategy against the Islamic State group because a political transition in Syria could be necessary to meet the president’s goal of degrading and ultimately destroying the terrorist organization.  However, the New York Times last week indicated the exact opposite; “The Obama administration maintains that a lasting political solution requires Mr. Assad’s exit. But facing military stalemate, well-armed jihadists and the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, the United States is going along with international diplomatic efforts that could lead to more gradual change in Syria. That shift comes along with other American actions that Mr. Assad’s supporters and opponents take as proof Washington now believes that if Mr. Assad is ousted, there will be nothing to check the spreading chaos and extremism.”

Here lies the administration’s hesitance to repeat history.  After the ouster of Saddam in Iraq, the nation was thrust into chaos with mass looting, armed militias, and eventually a vicious insurgency, though, Syria is currently much worse now than Iraq was following Saddam’s exit.  The Obama administration does not want to engage in yet another state building endeavor after having already overseen three.  Andrew Tabler, senior fellow in The Washington Institute’s Program on Arab Politics, has offered his criticism regarding the parochial Syrian approach aimed toward the Islamic State group – the US will not win if it does not focus on Assad.  Additionally, Mr. Tabler provided four distinct concerns for Syria’s current situation and fostering a healthy future.  First, if Assad is allowed to stay, Syria will become partitioned and remain a failed state that continues to pit Sunnis against Shias.  Second, the US should encourage the Assad regime to take the Islamic State group head on, which will significantly weaken their forces and, in turn, Iran’s proxy’s as well.  Third, bolster moderate rebel forces while continuing to provide robust humanitarian aid to displaced Syrian refugees.  Last, remove Assad diplomatically.

Assad has powerful allies who have fought tooth and nail to keep him in power.  It is possible the US does not have the diplomatic energy or resolve to address this complicated undertaking given other crises such as the Ukrainian strife with Russia, nuclear negotiations with Iran, and of course, the anti-Islamic State group coalition.  Russia has offered to get involved in a transitional process, though with little legitimacy especially after top rebel leaders refuse to attend.

The president and officials within his administration have not provided much detail regarding the strategy in Syria.  Plans to train Syrian rebels have trickled out during briefings.  More information has been gleaned from former administration officials who have voiced their frustration with the lethargic process.  Several experts predict the conflict in Syria will last at least ten more years.  Ousting Assad and developing an effective replacement could become the task of the century considering the situation in Syria is the greatest humanitarian disaster in a generation.