Micah Zenko

Obama’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ Syria Strategy

If you don't know where you are going, any road will take you there.


President Obama’s decision to intervene more directly in Syria’s civil war by providing limited lethal aid to certain members of the Syrian opposition is a significant foreign policy commitment. It is also a very confused one.

Forget for a moment that the case for Syria’s chemical weapons use was based on unverifiable evidence, or that the administration had reportedly decided to arm Syrian rebels before it even had that evidence. Forget that the president himself reportedly does not think arming the rebels will achieve much, that only 11 percent or 20 percent of the American people endorse his decision, that analysts dismiss it as "too little, too late," and that even Capitol Hill supporters believe the move is insufficient. As Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez stated: "You can’t just simply send them a pea shooter against a blunderbuss."

What was most troubling about this latest shift in U.S. policy was the absence of a speech or briefing by the president, or a cabinet official, to clearly articulate why America is deepening its involvement in this Middle East conflict, what U.S. interests are at stake in the civil war, and what strategic objective the United States hopes to achieve. When asked directly about his decision to provide lethal assistance, Obama stated: "I cannot and will not comment on specifics around our programs related to the Syrian opposition."

The cornerstone of holding public officials accountable by evaluating their policy choices is to first understand what those policies are, but since the June 13 announcement, Obama administration officials have offered the following reasons:

President Obama:

  • "[W]e want a Syria that is peaceful, non-sectarian, democratic, legitimate, tolerant. And that is our overriding goal. We want to end the bloodshed. We want to make sure that chemical weapons are not used, and that chemical weapons do not fall into the hands of people who would be willing to use them."

Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes:

  • "[T]o help build an opposition that can be broadly representative of the Syrian people."
  • "[T]o create a more moderate foundation for opponents of the regime so that we’re marginalizing extremists and empowering people that we believe will respect the rights of the Syrian people."
  • "[S]ome type of transition that preserves state institutions."

State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki:

  • "[T]o strengthen the opposition on the ground, but also their political organization, increase their effectiveness and their cohesion."
  • "[T]he goal is for [the opposition] to expand…. They need to elect leadership."
  • "[A] political solution, a political transition…. [T]hat remains our focus."
  • "[I]mproving the ground situation for the opposition … change the balance on the ground."

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel:

  • "To assure that this problem in Syria doesn’t totally break down and we see the disintegration of Syria."

Secretary of State John Kerry:

  • "We do so not to seek a military solution; we do so to come to the table and find a political settlement." 

While some of these partially overlap, administration officials have put forth over a dozen objectives for the United States and its partners in Syria — in just the last 12 days. Never in the history of third-party interventions in civil wars has so much been asked of so little. This combination of maximalist and minimalist goals without a single clearly articulated strategic objective, or any degree of prioritization, should be troubling to all Americans. The situation brings to mind the condensed quote from a conversation between Alice and the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland: "If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there."

The practical effect of the policy shift is that America is now formally tied to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is ostensibly commanded by the Supreme Military Council (SMC) and led by former Syrian army general Salim Idriss. Shortly before the White House announced Syria’s chemical weapons use, Idriss warned: "If we don’t receive ammunition and weapons … to change the balance on the ground, very frankly I can say we will not go to Geneva." Rather than condition U.S. lethal assistance on Idriss’s participation in the Geneva talks, the United States provided arms in the hopes that Idriss might decide to attend Geneva at some point in the future — an early demonstration of who has leverage over whom.

When an outside power openly backs certain rebel groups in a civil war, it immediately becomes invested in their prestige and power vis-à-vis other groups and in their success against the ruling regime. The outside power can fail: 1) If the groups receiving support see their relative power reduced, either through battlefield failures or political incompetence; 2) If the groups that the outside power hopes to marginalize actually gain prestige or power; or 3) If the ruling regime survives. Therefore, the United States and its partners are not merely "picking sides" in Syria, but picking sides of sides, and doing so with conflicting goals. French President Francois Hollande recently called on the FSA to start fighting Islamist rebels to "push these groups out." This would be yet another objective.

A spokesperson for the FSA’s Washington-based lobbying wing welcomed the White House’s public commitment of support, noting: "Obama is now directly involved, so he has more of a stake in whether we win or lose." This is, of course, a strategic goal for the weaker party in any conflict: securing and then deepening the political and military support of outside third parties to help them win. Proponents of intervening in Syria claimed that U.S. credibility — vis-a-vis Iran, the Middle East, the world, etc. — was on the line. Having tied its fate to the FSA, U.S. credibility is arguably now at even greater risk. If the FSA fails on the battlefield, then it will claim that it didn’t get enough weapons — or powerful enough weapons. However, should the combined armed opposition groups believe they can "seek a military solution" over the Assad regime, then why engage in the Geneva diplomatic process at all?

Furthermore, it is difficult to see how arming certain rebel groups will achieve some of the Obama administration’s objectives. For example, why would more weapons compel the Supreme Military Council to become more cohesive or broadly representative? The SMC could simply pocket the additional arsenal to bolster its power relative to other rebel groups. It could also sell them: The New York Times reported this weekend that SMC-backed groups have sold weapons to extremists who are purportedly blacklisted from receiving outside military assistance. Finally, the weapons could cause further rifts within the Free Syrian Army: After a shipment of advanced weaponry arrived in Syria recently, an FSA spokesperson complained, "The distribution was not fair. It was random, based on the people they know." A rebel commander in Aleppo asked: "Do [the Americans] not realize that they will prompt further infighting in rebel ranks?"

In discussing Syria, administration officials have repeated the post-Iraq interventionist mantra: "[A]ll options remain on the table" — except "boots on the ground." Or, as a senior official put it: "We are looking for the best option with the least involvement." Rather than stating a strategic objective for Syria and developing a political-military campaign plan that could plausibly achieve it, the Obama administration’s "strategy" is focused primarily on keeping the effort level down. If the White House has decided — above all else — to minimize America’s commitments in Syria, then it should also markedly reduce its stated political and military objectives. President Obama acknowledges that, in Syria, "it is very easy to slip-slide your way into deeper and deeper commitments." That is especially true when the United States and its partners are so unclear and conflicted about why they are there.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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