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The Angst in Foggy Bottom

The Angst in Foggy Bottom

Last week, when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, reading from a letter sent from the White House to members of Congress, announced that the U.S. intelligence community believed that the Syrian regime may have used chemical weapons against its own people, the Obama administration wasn’t quite ready for the round-the-clock cable-news frenzy that followed.

Back in August, and on multiple occasions since, President Obama laid out his "red line" for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad: Don’t use chemical weapons. But now, reports had been trickling out of Syria for weeks of rebel fighters claiming they had been attacked with mysterious chemical gases. Videos emerged that appeared to show victims foaming at the mouth, in agony. Officials from Britain, France, Israel, and Qatar all said they believed chemical weapons had been used. With Hagel’s remarks, the Obama administration seemed to be confirming that the president’s red line might indeed have been crossed.

But officials told me that as late as Thursday morning, the White House had yet to assemble talking points for the State Department on the subject, a rarity for a White House famously adept at managing 23rd St.’s messaging from Pennsylvania Ave. Just minutes before Secretary of State John Kerry went to brief members of Congress in a closed-door session on Syria, his team was still scrambling to prepare talking points based on the White House letter.

"I think that they just weren’t prepared for that assessment by the intel community — it caught them off guard," one State Department official said, referring to the White House. (Another State Department official denied that the administration was unprepared. "The Hill briefing was long planned and given the decision to release an unclassified letter on Wednesday night, that was naturally a part of what the secretary discussed," this person said. "The language for the briefing and our public language was closely coordinated at every step with the White House. The White House hosted a briefing call with the press." But the invitation to that call went out only minutes before the briefing.)

As for the White House letter to Congress, it was carefully hedged. "[O]ur intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin," it read. "[O]ur standard of evidence must build on these intelligence assessments as we seek to establish credible and corroborated facts," it continued.

The use of qualifiers and the focus on the evidence from the White House is no accident: Past intelligence failures and the public’s war exhaustion loom over the entire discussion of what to do when it comes to Syria. But among many at the State Department, as the death toll from the conflict climbs toward 100,000 people and the refugee population soars into the millions, a sense of "huge frustration" is growing, one department source said.

"They are basically doing everything in their power to avoid the slam-dunk scenario that we are all so familiar with," said another State Department official, referring to CIA Director George Tenet’s claim to President George W. Bush in the lead up to the Iraq war that there was a "slam-dunk case" that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. "I think the only reason we haven’t intervened is because of the Iraq experience and because of Obama’s thinking about getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan."

The Obama administration has indeed grown more active on Syria recent months. The United States is sending food and medical supplies to the opposition Supreme Military Command, and a week ago Secretary of State John Kerry announced a doubling of non-lethal support, bringing the total announced aid to the rebels to around $250 million. Last month, President Obama vowed to work with Congress to come up with $200 million more for Jordan as it struggles with a flood of refugees, who now number more than 10 percent of the Jordanian population. A recent Washington Post story noted the stealth delivery of American humanitarian aid to refugees in rebel-held areas and America’s more than $350 million in humanitarian support.

But for many of the officials closest to the Syria issue, the "mood is, we should have been doing more a long time ago," this official said. Elsewhere within the State Department there is sympathy for an Obama administration facing few good options in Syria — alongside a sense the White House should have known this day of red line reckoning would come.

And for some, that translates into great frustration with the Obama administration’s policy on Syria thus far. "It is borderline isolationist," said a third State Department official familiar with deliberations on Syria, referring to the administration’s approach. "They are learning all the wrong things from Iraq."

In this official’s view, the White House policy to contain the crisis within Syria’s borders and to force Bashar al-Assad’s regime into negotiations faces slim odds of success because Syria’s ruler sees the conflict as an existential threat to the ruling family. The calculus grew more complicated last week when eight senators forced the White House to share its view of widespread reports of the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, no matter how much top administration officials couched the language in qualifiers.

"The issue of chemical weapons is extremely problematic for the strategy of containment because it is not even the question of the weapons falling into wrong hands, it is the precedent this is setting," said the third official, noting that Turkey and the Arab Gulf states are surely watching to see how the Americans will respond to Syria’s crossing of the proverbial red line. And then of course there is Iran. "If we are going to demonstrate an inability to respond we could be creating a big problem for us and our allies in the region down the line."

This official and others who favor greater intervention in the region swiftly acknowledge that there are no risk-free options and a whole slew of problematic and potentially lethal unknowns. But they argue that inaction presents greater risk.

"That is not who we are and what we do and how we have protected our interests for the last 60 years," said this official. "That is not how you do it in the Middle East; you can’t sit back as a country that borders a NATO ally, Iraq, Israel goes up in flames."

And while it has become popular to invoke the Iraq example, others say Bosnia is the closest parallel given the role of Russia, the ethnic nature of the conflict, and the devastating and escalating number of civilian casualties.

The word "Dayton" — referring to the 1995 talks that led to the end of the fighting in the Bosnian war — was heard around the State Department last week, but it means different things to different people. And the White House is keenly aware that the American public has no appetite to engage in a new round of war after a decade of conflict in the Middle East and South Asia that has left more than
6,000 American service members dead
. The president campaigned in 2008 on ending the war in Iraq and in 2012 on ending the war in Afghanistan. Getting embroiled in another conflict in the Middle East is not on the White House’s agenda.

"This is a problem they did not want to deal with and then it was just put in front of them in a way that they could not avoid," said the first official. "This is a tricky one. And I have a feeling that, like a lot of these things, there is no good answer."