Syria’s Rebels Cry Foul After Obama Calls Off Strike
Members of the Syrian opposition and their supporters reacted with a mixture of alarm and outrage at President Obama’s decision to delay a military strike on Syria while he seeks authorization from Congress. In brief remarks from the Rose Garden on Saturday afternoon, Obama said the United States should take military action against the Syrian ...
Members of the Syrian opposition and their supporters reacted with a mixture of alarm and outrage at President Obama's decision to delay a military strike on Syria while he seeks authorization from Congress.
Members of the Syrian opposition and their supporters reacted with a mixture of alarm and outrage at President Obama’s decision to delay a military strike on Syria while he seeks authorization from Congress.
In brief remarks from the Rose Garden on Saturday afternoon, Obama said the United States should take military action against the Syrian regime in response to a chemical weapons attack in Damascus on August 21, but that he would wait for both houses of Congress to debate the action and hold a vote. The earliest that could happen is the week of September 9, when both chambers will have returned from summer recess.
The unexpected delay added to a sense of disarray and confusion among some rebel factions about U.S. policy and when, or if, the Obama administration will intervene to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for what Obama called "the worst chemical weapons attack of the 21st Century." An extraordinary amount of detail about a military strike had been leaking out for days, leading forces on the ground to assume U.S. action was imminent.
"This is absolutely a blow to many in the opposition on the ground who’ve suffered the brunt of the chemical attacks," said Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, which has long favored American intervention in the conflict. "The feeling now is that this is really an orphaned revolution and that the regime will feel emboldened to continue its shelling of cities and towns around Damascus."
"The Syrian people feel more alone now than ever," Moustafa said. "Even after the Assad regime used chemical weapons that the entire planet opposes, the U.S. has yet to react."
No one spokesman can speak for Syria’s complex, often fractured, opposition, of course. But Moustafa’s outrage is far from isolated. Razan Zaitouneh, an anti-Assad activist in the town of Douma, one of the towns hit in the Aug. 21 attack, said she’d listened to Obama’s speech, "But [I] don’t care anymore. After learning they [the Americans] knew about the attack three days before it took place and did nothing, what should I expect from them?!" he wrote in an instant message.
Opposition supporters said foreclosing any military action until at least 10 days from now gives the Assad regime time to prepare its defenses and telegraphs U.S. intentions.
"It’s a horrible idea. From a military perspective, this is the worst possible thing we could’ve done," said Chris Harmer, a retired Navy officer, analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, and one of Washington’s most vocal advocates for military action in Syria. "It gives Assad a tremendous amount of foreknowledge. It allows Assad to disperse his forces. It gives him all kinds of time to prep for an attack."
Shelling reportedly resumed in Damascus as soon as Obama finished speaking, Harmer noted.
A senior administration official disputed the notion that a delay would embolden Assad’s forces.
"On the contrary. It’s not a bad thing to keep the Assad regime and his military in some suspense," the official said. "We’ve had some indications that they’ve entered into a defensive crouch. As long as there’s a military threat looming over them, they’ll stay in that crouch. I’m not saying there’ll be no violence. But there are a number of Syrian units focused less on perpetrating violence than on their own survival."
The extra time also gives the Obama administration the chance to rally support for a military assault. "There now is more time to talk to our allies. There is time to educate the American people. There is time to take the classified intelligence briefing given to Congress last night and make a more convincing case," said Tony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "There’s also time to ask the most important question of all: What is our strategic goal here? What are we trying to do in Syria?"
Cordesman added that the Obama administration’s roll-out of intelligence on Syria had been clumsy and unconvincing. Secretary of State John Kerry’s stated casualty estimates, in particular, were "in need of adult supervision," Cordesman said. Kerry proclaimed that precisely 1,429 were killed in the Aug 21 attack. That figure, according to Cordesman, was "far too precise. It came from one [non-governmental organization], and is simply not credible. And, to make things worse, it disagreed with the British estimate." (It put the death toll around 350.)
But rebel groups were counting on a swift U.S. response after the release this week of an intelligence report pinning the blame for the chemical attack on the Syrian regime.
"Psychologically, we built up rebels’ expectations that help was coming," Harmer said. "They were prepped for a U.S. attack that never came or might not come."
Harmer said that moderate Syrian opposition forces might now be tempted to join forces with the Al Nusra Front, which is aligned with Al Qaeda. "The psychological impact of [a delayed U.S. strike] can’t be underestimated, especially from moderates," Harmer said. "The temptation to go to the dark side is greater than ever."
Within minutes of Obama’s address, lawmakers began taking unexpected positions on the rejiggered Syria debate. Sen. Rand Paul, who had previously called military action in Syria "a big mistake," issued a statement saying that he was "encouraged President Obama now says he will fulfill his constitutional obligation to seek authorization for any potential military action in Syria."
"This is the most important decision any President or any Senator must make, and it deserves vigorous debate," Paul added. Top Republicans in the Senate, including Leader Mitch McConnell, were also supportive of Obama’s decision.
Rep. Peter King, meanwhile, accused the President of "abdicating" his authority as commander-in-chief by even entertaining approval from Congressmen like him. That sentiment got some support from Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Air Force veteran, who accused Obama of a "‘lead from behind’ approach in his own government. While I appreciate the President bringing a matter of this importance before Congress, without strong leadership from our Commander in Chief, neither the American people nor the rest of the world will believe that the United States is serious in our condemnation of the use of chemical weapons, no matter what limited military action is eventually taken."
In one of the most surprising reactions from Congress, Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham issued statements saying they could not support Obama’s plan to order a limited cruise missile strike. Not because it was too aggressive, but because it wasn’t aggressive enough.
"We cannot in good conscience support isolated military strikes in Syria that are not part of an overall strategy that can change the momentum on the battlefield, achieve the President’s stated goal of Assad’s removal from power, and bring an end to this conflict, which is a growing threat to our national security interests," the senators said.
"Anything short of this would be an inadequate response to the crimes against humanity that Assad and his forces are committing. And it would send the wrong signal to America’s friends and allies, the Syrian opposition, the Assad regime, Iran, and the world–all of whom are watching closely what actions America will take."
Moustafa urged McCain and Graham to authorize the strikes.
"I think they should be voting yes," said Moustafa. "I agree with Sen. McCain’s position that a U.S. strike should seek to improve the rebels’ position against the Assad regime. Regardless some action must be taken even if it’s not exactly what we want in the long run."
According to senior administration officials, Obama had planned to strike Syria without congressional approval, but changed his mind on Friday night. Reportedly, national security officials were initially opposed to seeking lawmakers’ permission, but changed their minds Saturday.
Some lawmakers called on the Senate go back into session early so it could take up the debate. House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement that the chamber would take up a measure the week of September 9.
"There’s a respect to be had for the president to go to Congress to get authorization to do something that must be done after this chemical strike but i think we need to react," Moustafa said. "This is not frightening to Damascus and Moscow and Hezbollah. They see this as a weakness. This was a huge chemical attack killing more than 1,400 people and we haven’t moved quickly enough and now congress is going to take up the issue."
John Hudson was a staff writer and reporter at Foreign Policy from 2013-2017.
Noah Shachtman was a news editor at Foreign Policy in 2013. Twitter: @NoahShachtman
Shane Harris was a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy from 2013-2014. Twitter: @shaneharris
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