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Inside the Obama team’s “shift” on Syria

The Obama administration is preparing a wide range of new actions to condemn the Syrian government’s brutal violence against protesters. However, U.S. officials still remain skeptical that they have the leverage to significantly affect the unfolding crisis in the country. For the first three weeks of the protests in Syria, which first broke out on ...


The Obama administration is preparing a wide range of new actions to condemn the Syrian government’s brutal violence against protesters. However, U.S. officials still remain skeptical that they have the leverage to significantly affect the unfolding crisis in the country.

For the first three weeks of the protests in Syria, which first broke out on March 15, the Obama administration debated internally how to react to while generally proceeding cautiously in public. Occupied with the Libya war and skeptical that Syria would reach the current level of unrest, the administration’s policy was to issue carefully worded statements condemning the violence while encouraging Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to pursue reform and reconciliation.

Two weeks ago, however, the mood inside the administration changed in response to Assad’s brutal crackdown and the realization that he was not listening to pro-reform voices from inside or outside Syria. After a series of deliberations, culminating in a Deputies Committee meeting at the National Security Council last week, a new policy course was set. In the coming days, expect a new executive order on Syria, a draft presidential statement at the U.N. Security Council, new designations of Syrian officials as targets of sanctions, and a firmer tone on the violence that will include references to Iran’s unhelpful influence on Syria’s crackdown.

The new sanctions will not target Assad directly and there will be no call for him to go.

"The days of just making statements are over and we are at a turning point," said Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "What that turning point leads to we don’t know yet."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came under criticism for her March 27 statement, "Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe [Assad]’s a reformer."

But based on the information at the time, most inside the administration didn’t feel she had said anything wrong.  Multiple administration officials told The Cable that the administration had simply concluded, incorrectly, that the Syrian crisis would never grow this serious. That judgment informed their go-slow approach in responding to the protests.

But one month later, as the protest movement has gained strength and spread to cities throughout Syria, nobody inside the Obama administration is saying that now.

"A lot of people were wrong. The general assessment [inside the administration] was that this wouldn’t happen, that Assad was too good at nipping these movements in the bud and also that he was not afraid to be brutal," one administration official said. "All of these things combined made this more of a surprise and made it much harder to deal with."

For the first three weeks of the protests, the analysts told the policy makers that it was unclear whether the opposition had wide support throughout the country and whether the protest movement would be able to sustain itself and grow.

"Then, gradually, every day we saw the protests get larger, and we realized this is going to get worse and that [Assad] wasn’t going to listen to anyone else," the official said, explaining the administration’s recent stream of increasingly harsh condemnations of the Syrian government’s actions. "It was a reaction to the events on the ground."

The Obama administration has always been divided between those who prioritized efforts to convince Assad to break with Iran, those who wanted to concentrate on Syrian-Israeli negotiations (sometimes known as the "peace process junkies"), and those who believed that Assad would always be a ruthless and anti-Western dictator, and should be treated as such.

As the violence in Syria escalated, different parts of the administration pushed for different courses of action. At the Treasury Department, for example, sanctions experts were pushing for targeted and specific measures that could put financial pressure on the Syrian government. These measures are the fastest options to deploy, and also the easiest, because they don’t require Congressional buy-in.

At the State Department, the bureau of Near Eastern Affairs was also pressing for quicker decision making, multiple administration sources said. U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, in search of clear guidance for his discussions with the Assad regime, was pushing for specifics on U.S. demands and what pressures might be forthcoming should Syria not comply.

However, a push for aggressive action wasn’t necessarily the State Department’s position at the end of the day. Multiple sources said that, when the Syria discussions reached the deputies or principals level, State was often viewed as taking a cautious line, not wanting to give U.S. critics ammunition to claim the protests were driven by the West. Meanwhile, the NSC staff was asking what leverage the United States has over Syria, and what exact steps it wanted the Syrian government to take.

The view inside the administration is that Syria is a particularly complicated problem because the United States does not have good relationships with either the government or the opposition and lacks the leverage to affect events in the country.

"The people inside the administration who have been trying to craft a systematic narrative as to how the U.S. is responding to the Arab spring, they would like to see a more forceful response, but they are right to be cautious because it’s very unclear exactly how widespread the support for the protests really are," said George Washington University professor Marc Lynch.

The administration now has no choice but to increase its involvement, but it will continue to be mindful that U.S. pressure, even with international support, has limited influence.

"Once Assad decided to use brutal force, it really forced their hand. But we still don’t have a lot of leverage," Lynch said.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

Tag: Syria