Ignore what the White House is ‘considering’ in Syria

Ignore what the White House is ‘considering’ in Syria

FP alum Josh Rogin, now plying his trade over at the Daily Beast, had a scoop yesterday: The White House has requested that the Pentagon draw up plans for implementing a no-fly zone in Syria. While President Barack Obama hasn’t made any decisions yet, an administration official affirmed, "the planning is moving forward and it’s more advanced than it’s ever been."

Rogin knows his stuff, and I have no reason to doubt the story is true. But this leak, suggesting America’s policy on Syria is poised to change radically, sounds eerily familiar. Here is a trip down memory lane:

May 3, 2013: "U.S. Considering Arming Syria Rebels." –Radio Free Europe

April 5, 2013: "The White House … is reviewing a new set of potential military options for assisting rebels in Syria." –Wall Street Journal

March 15, 2013: "CIA begins sizing up Islamic extremists in Syria for drone strikes" –Los Angeles Times

Feb. 26, 2013: "U.S. moves toward providing direct aid to Syrian rebels" –Washington Post

Feb. 7, 2013: "Pentagon leaders favored arming Syrian rebels" Washington Post

Dec. 3, 2012: "The White House has been loath to make a direct intervention in Syria but clearly indicated Monday that the use of chemical weapons could change the equation."-AFP

Nov. 28, 2012: "The Obama administration, hoping that the conflict in Syria has reached a turning point, is considering deeper intervention to help push President Bashar al-Assad from power." –New York Times

Feb. 22, 2012: "Shelling of Homs resumes as U.S. signals possibility of arming Syrian opposition" –Al-Arabiya

Feb. 8, 2012: "International ‘militarisation’ in Syria growing closer, warns US official" –Telegraph

To be clear, none of these stories is inaccurate. They all quote Obama administration officials’ remarks about the options currently on the table to respond to the Syrian crisis. They always note that the White House is considering its options — not that the president has made a decision yet.

But just because these articles aren’t wrong doesn’t mean they shed much light on what the Obama administration is thinking on Syria. It’s the job of large swathes of the U.S. defense establishment to prepare options in the event that Obama decides to intervene more aggressively. Roughly 24,000 people work in the Pentagon alone — if one team in the building is mulling efforts to arm the rebels or implement a no-fly zone, it’s fair game for a newspaper to write that the Defense Department is in the planning stages on those options. But that doesn’t mean the possibility will ever become a reality.

Collectively, all these articles suggest that U.S. policy toward Syria is in a state of flux — any moment now, the blaring headlines suggest, Washington could jump headfirst into this conflict. In reality, U.S. policy has been fairly constant: The Obama administration provides humanitarian and non-lethal aid to the opposition, but largely is opposed to entangling the American military in the conflict. Like anything else, that could change. But more than two years into this war, the picture should be pretty clear.