Trudy Rubin: How Obama got Syria so wrong

trubinphillynews.comSeptember 10, 2013 

Unless President Barack Obama can show Congress that his planned Syria strike is linked to a larger – and coherent – strategy, legislators should just say no.

So far, his explanations, and those of his Cabinet members at congressional hearings, have only added to the confusion. “What is it you’re seeking?” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., asked Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in trying to elicit the broader goals of military action. The general replied candidly, “I can’t answer that, what we’re seeking.”

That moment of testimony encapsulated the dilemma for the Congress and the country. If the military doesn’t grasp where the commander in chief is leading, and the president can’t (or won’t) clarify, we’re all in trouble. You can’t get there if you don’t know where “there” is.

This is not the way to wage a war – oops, I mean a limited military strike.

The official explanation for the strike, of course, is to “degrade and deter” Bashar Assad’s ability to gas his own people. This would signal other would-be mass murderers not to use such weapons. The attack would supposedly be very limited – missiles fired from ships at sea, but no boots on the ground. It would not be meant to change the course of the Syrian conflict, or to help the rebels beat Assad.

Of course, a missile strike would mainly be meant to salvage Obama’s and America’s credibility (with Iran) by proving the president means what he says when he sets red lines.

But an ill-conceived attack is more likely to destroy Obama’s reputation than to restore it. If it’s purely symbolic, Assad will emerge unscathed, and triumphant. Already, while Congress debates, and administration officials leak details of likely targets, Assad has cleared men, rockets, and artillery from prospective target sites. Dempsey testified that he may have moved prisoners in as human shields.

“A minimal strike would do more harm than good,” says Elizabeth O’Bagy, a senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War who has done extensive interviews with Syrian rebel commanders. It would demoralize more moderate rebel forces, who have been waiting in vain for long-promised U.S. weapons.

Given this reality, the temptation will be to expand the target sites (which the Pentagon is already doing) and employ aircraft in addition to ship-launched missiles. Here, too, lies danger. Without a clear strategy, the administration could get sucked into a longer bombing campaign with no clear endgame and disastrous repercussions inside Syria – and in the region.

Yet Obama seems headed right into that trap.

The White House rightly fears that Islamist militias are best placed to take advantage of Assad’s losses from any U.S. military action – whether too limited or too extensive. This fear lies at the root of the administration’s indecision. (The White House wants to devise a strike that resembles the porridge in the Goldilocks fairy tale – not hot enough to unseat Assad, or cold enough to look weak.)

Several senators have tried to press the White House to link any U.S. strike to arms and training for more moderate rebel groups, so they – not jihadis – would benefit from any weakening of Assad. This, at least, would make strategic sense.

O’Bagy, who has traveled widely inside Syria, says the bulk of rebel groups are not jihadis. In fact, the extremist rebel groups have alienated mainstream fighters with their harsh ideology and brutal treatment of civilians.

But the repeated failure of Washington to keep its promises of military aid to more moderate rebel commanders (who have been vetted by the CIA) has benefited the jihadis, who get arms and money from rich Persian Gulf Arabs. So has the U.S. failure to fully support an umbrella Supreme Military Council that Washington helped set up last December.

In late August, after the regime’s chemical-weapons attack, four of the five top council commanders threatened to resign and to cooperate with jihadi fighters against Assad if the West didn’t deliver promised military aid. They were already angered that small arms promised months ago were never delivered. Nor has the administration given a green light for other countries – particularly the Saudis – to deliver antiaircraft weapons to CIA-vetted rebels.

The White House worries that such weapons may fall into the hands of radical Islamists. Yet the failure to keep pledges to moderates has actually strengthened the jihadis – just the result that the administration most feared.

Obama is now said to be studying a wider role for U.S. military advisers in training moderate rebels. Perhaps this is meant as a sop to senators who won’t vote for a military strike unless it is linked to such aid. But – after the chemical strike – a long-range training program is not sufficient. This will be too little, too late to make any difference.

Had the president armed vetted groups last summer – as all his top civilian and military advisers advocated – the chemical-weapons attack might never have happened. Now may be the last opportunity the White House will have to strengthen such groups and enlist them as partners. Only if they gain strength inside Syria, and soon, might the Assad regime crack – and negotiations become possible.

This – not a halfhearted strike – is the best way to prevent any future Syrian chemical attacks.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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