Obama’s Syria Policy and the Illusion of US Power in the Middle East

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With the collapse of the US-Russian ceasefire agreement and the resumption
and escalation of the massive Russian bombing campaign in Aleppo, the frustration
of hawks in Washington over the failure of the Obama administration to use American
military power in Syria has risen to new heights. 

But the administration’s inability to do anything about Russian military escalation
in Aleppo is the logical result of the role the Obama administration has been
playing in Syria over the past five years.

The problem is that the administration has pursued policy objectives that it
lacked the means to achieve. When Obama called on President Bashar al-Assad
to step down in September 2011, the administration believed, incredibly, that
he would do so of his own accord. As former Hillary Clinton aide and Pentagon
official Derek Chollet reveals in his new book, The Long Game, “[E]arly
in the crisis, most officials believed Assad lacked the necessary cunning and
fortitude to stay in power.” 

Administration policymakers began using the phrase “managed transition” in
regard to US policy toward the government, according to Chollet. The phrase
reflected perfectly the vaulting ambitions of policymakers who were eager to
participate in a regime change that they saw as a big win for the United States
and Israel and a big loss for Iran. 

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would be out front pushing for a United
Nations Security Council resolution calling for a “transition” in Syria.

But US regional Sunni allies – Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia – would provide
the arms to Syrian fighters. The only US role in the war would be a covert operation
devised by then CIA director David Petraeus to provide intelligence and logistical
assistance to those allies, to get arms to the groups chosen by the Sunni regimes
that would pay for them.

Of course there were those, led by Clinton herself, who wanted to go further
and create a “no-fly zone” where the insurgents could be trained and operate
freely. But Obama, supported by the US military leadership, would not support
that invitation to war. The US was going to play the great power role in Syria
without getting its hands dirty with the arming of an opposition force.

But within a few months it was already clear that the administration’s “managed
transition” had gone terribly wrong. Al-Qaeda, firmly ensconced in Iraq, had
begun to show its hand in a series of attacks in Damascus and elsewhere in Syria.
By August 2012, it was widely recognized that the jihadists were rapidly taking
over the anti-Assad war.

Ed Hussein of the Council on Foreign Relations observed in the Christian Science
Monitor that Syria was becoming “a magnet for jihadis globally,” just as Iraq
had become after the US invasion. The Defense Intelligence Agency identified
al-Qaeda, the…

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