Did Obama Administration Leaks Already Spoil the Syria Attack?

Former top officers are baffled by Washington's telegraphing of its strike on Assad.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

U.S. airstrikes into Syria will begin within days and involve Tomahawk cruise missiles fired by American warships in the eastern Mediterranean. They will last less than a week and target a limited number of Syrian military installations.  And they will be designed to send a stern message to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, not force him from power.

That’s the word coming from some in the Obama administration — the White House swears it’s not them. And while Obama’s aides publicly insist that the President hasn’t made a final decision about whether to attack Syria, anonymous officials within his administration are leaking a strikingly large amount of detailed information about the timing, duration and scope of the potential military intervention. The flood of details raises a pair of related questions. Is the administration deliberately trying to telegraph its plans for a strike? And if so, why?

"I have no earthly idea why they’re talking so much," said retired Admiral William Fallon, the former head of the military’s Central Command. "It’s not leaking out; it’s coming out through a hose. It’s just a complete head-scratcher."

David Deptula, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who commanded the no-fly zone over Iraq in the late 1990s, said that military action was most effective when a U.S. foe like Assad didn’t have a clear sense of the timing and severity of a potential strike and couldn’t take protective measures in advance like dispersing his troops or weapons so they’d be harder to find and destroy. The administration’s public and private comments, he said, meant that Assad would have an easier time figuring out when and how to prepare for a U.S. assault. 

"You don’t want an adversary to know what’s coming," Deptula said. "Now Assad does."

In recent days, White House spokesman Jay Carney has said that the military operations under consideration by President Obama "are not about regime change," while The New York Times and other newspapers reported that the White House was considering a limited series of strikes that would last one to two days and strike fewer than 50 targets. The paper said the U.S. would focus on hitting individual Syrian military units, headquarters compounds, air bases, and rocket sites, not chemical weapons facilities themselves. The information was attributed to unnamed administration officials. 

There were signs Wednesday that the Syrian strongman has already begun reacting to the talk coming out of Washington about the potential targets of a U.S. strike. Reuters reported that Assad’s forces appeared to have evacuated most of their personnel from several key army, air force, and security headquarters buildings in central Damascus. Those are precisely the kinds of military compounds U.S. cruise missiles would reportedly be sent to destroy.   

The administration’s willingness to share details about sensitive military operations has prompted internal consternation in the past. In the days after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates grew so angry about the amount of information leaking out about the assault that he reportedly approached then-National Security Advisor Tom Donilon to recommend "a new strategic communications approach." It was a simple one. "Shut the f— up," Gates said.

Many of the administration’s highest-profile leaks have concerned operations that had already been successfully carried out, like the bin Laden raid or the U.S. role in creating the Stuxnet computer virus that temporarily slowed Iran’s nuclear program. The current situation is arguably riskier for the U.S. because the information being leaked concerns an operation that has yet to take place. 

A White House official — also speaking, ironically, under the condition of anonymity — denied that the administration had been responsible for publicizing specifics about potential U.S. targets and insisted that it opposed the release of the information.    

"The kinds of details you’re talking about are not coming out with the approval of the White House," the official said. "I don’t know who is talking about these things, but we want it to stop. Our intention is not to talk about the details of military operations the president has not decided upon."

The official also defended the administration’s preemptive declaration that a U.S. strike wouldn’t be designed to drive Assad from power. "Regime change is not U.S. policy in Syria," the official said. "We’ve made clear for many months that we think there is no military solution to the crisis in Syria and that a political solution is needed."

That message is hard to reconcile with the administration’s tough talk about Assad. White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday that Assad "has long since forsaken any legitimacy that he might have to lead" and stressed that Syria’s future "must be one that is without Assad in power." President Obama himself has been calling for Assad to step aside for more than a year.   

Deptula said that he didn’t know why the administration would call for Assad’s ouster — while simultaneously insisting that it wasn’t going to try to use force to bring that ouster about.

"There are these trial balloons being floated about the strikes being limited and not about regime change," he said. "Well, wait a second. Didn’t the president say Assad has got to go? How do you square that?"

The administration may have good reasons for trying to tread so narrow a line. Allies like Saudi Arabia have been privately pressing the administration to oust Assad for months, but the prospect of an American military intervention is so politically toxic throughout the region that Riyadh has pointedly refused to publicly endorse a U.S. strike. The Arab League has taken a similar position, and the administration could be trying to maintain support for a military intervention by making clear that it would be limited in both scope and duration. That message could also play well at home, where an overwhelming majority of the American public opposes U.S. involvement in Syria’s civil war.

The approach also carries clear risks, however, most notably that Assad will interpret a small-scale American strike as a sign that he can continue to wage a brutal campaign against his own people without risking a Western attempt to force him from power.  

"I’m not a big fan of the belief that you can send a message and have that be enough," Deptula said. "The leadership of Syria is responsible for this brand of armed conflict, and the leadership needs to feel like they’re paying a price.  If they don’t, you won’t see a change in behavior."

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