Report

Is Anyone In Charge Of U.S. Syria Policy?

Is Anyone In Charge Of U.S. Syria Policy?

Congress is demanding action. State reportedly wants airstrikes.  The Pentagon is worried about entry and exit strategies. The CIA is already delivering arms to Syrian rebels through Turkey and Jordan. USAID is delivering humanitarian assistance. But at the White House, officials are grappling with how to create a strategy on Syria that is effective and doable — but doesn’t drag the administration into yet another war in the Middle East.

Thoughtful people agree there are few good options. But what has made the problem worse, say individuals on all sides, is that the Syrian conflict has been unfolding for more than two years as the administration seemed to dig its head in the sand, hoping against hope that the rebels could overthrow the Assad regime all by themselves. That’s allowed differences in opinion to spill into public view, and created an impression that the Obama administration lacks any coherent plan. "If you’re going to be on the pointy end of the spear, regardless of where that is… knowing you’re going in with the full political support of the national leadership is critical," said one Congressional staffer. "Who can argue that that exists right now?"

And from a bureaucratic perspective, a lack of an effective structure inside the administration responsible for Syria has contributed to the impression of disarray from inside the government."I really am saddened by the fact that 2 ½ years into this, we don’t have an interagency task force that is effective, efficient and organized," said one administration official.

The quandary in which the White House finds itself played out in the Situation Room last Wednesday. As Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg reported, the Secretary of State John Kerry and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Marty Dempsey got into what was described as a heated exchange about the need to use airstrikes to send a real message to Syria’s Assad regime. Kerry wanted them, Dempsey didn’t. Aides familiar with the meeting say the meeting was more collegial than the Bloomberg portrayal — less of a "cage match," and more of a discussion — but the substance of the reporting was accurate.

To some, the debate between Kerry and Dempsey, and the sides each has staked out, may seem baffling. But with the Pentagon staring at grounded squadrons, docked carriers and even reduced window cleaning at the building, the U.S. military is on record as saying it can’t afford to get into the Syrian conflict in any substantive way. And those outside the building recognize the administration has not articulated any kind of strategy into which the Pentagon could conceivably fit in.

Dempsey’s resistance to airstrikes or no-fly zones runs deep: among proposals he’s dismissed (at least in part) is one by the Institute for the Study of War’s Joe Holliday. Months ago, he provided the Joint Staff with different courses of action for Syria, from train-and-assist programs to using Patriots as air defense batteries in Turkey and Jordan. He also suggested limited air strikes and a no-fly zone. "I was just trying to say that there are options between all or nothing," Holliday, a fellow at ISW, said. But Dempsey, like much of the brass beneath him, doesn’t agree.

Even many Syrian interventionists understand the Pentagon’s reluctance. The brass has been told, essentially, to worry about Iran in the region and Syria is essentially a sideshow that must end on its own.

That doesn’t satisfy Congressional critics who believe the White House has to devise a long-term strategy that gives the Pentagon room to maneuver.

For Kerry’s part, a no-fly zone — and the air strikes it would likely take to establish it — must remain on the table. Kerry is likely pushing for targeting a small handful of targets inside Syria that would in no way end the conflict but make send a signal and thus make a difference. Kerry, who like Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel are both Vietnam veterans, is thought to be well aware of the risks of "owning" the Syrian conflict.

At the State Department yesterday, spokesperson Jen Psaki addressed questions about the exchange in the Situation Room without going into many details. But she said State has always been clear that "…all options remain on the table aside from military boots on the ground," she said at Wednesday’s briefing. "So it should be no surprise that many, many options are being discussed in private meetings." 

But as American allies began clamoring for more assistance for the rebels, and after months of teeth gnashing, the administration has come to view the landscape differently. It signaled last week that it would begin providing direct military aid to Syria, even if it left details vague. And last week the Washington Post reported that the CIA was delivering arms to rebel groups in Syria through bases in Jordan and Turkey. The Agency, once wary, had developed a clearer understanding of the composition of rebel forces as they have begun to coalesce.

In part of that newfound confidence, the Pentagon is on board with direct military assistance. Col. Dave Lapan, a spokesman for Dempsey, said this week that despite concerns about the fractious nature of the conflict, the Pentagon has more confidence that it could help. "However, despite the lack of full clarity, we have indicators that the [Free Syrian Army] is becoming more organized and representative," Lapan said. "As a result, there is more reason to conclude today that we can provide support to the FSA in a way that is more accountable and consequential."

But anything more than that, like airstrikes or a no-fly zone, for now, seems to be off the table. Fearing that such a move would amount to an act of war, the Pentagon fears that too many are quick to see the Libyan model and apply it to Syria. But as Dempsey said earlier this spring, Syria’s air defense system looks much different than Libya’s did. "In Syria you’ve got — I think it’s five times more air defense systems, some of which are high-end air defense systems, that is to say higher altitude, longer range," Dempsey told reporters at a breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor, noting that most of those defenses are in the "western one-third" of the country. "So it’s a much denser and more sophisticated system," he said. "Now, the United States military has the capability to defeat that system, but it would be a greater challenge, take longer and require more resources."

"I don’t think there is anyone inside the administration that believes that what we’re doing on the military side will create the kind of leverage we need to get Assad at the table," the Congressional staffer said. "No one believes that."