Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Syria Delusions, Round Two

by Elliott Abrams
February 24, 2016


In 2012, the group that is supposed to be the senior national security team–the secretary of state (Hillary Clinton), secretary of defense (Leon Panetta), and CIA director (David Petraeus)–urged President Obama to support the Syrian rebels. He rejected their unanimous advice, instead maligning the rebels (“pharmacists”) while they were risking and often losing their lives fighting the Assad regime and ISIS. In 2014, Clinton said “The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad … the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.”

Four years later, we are in the same situation: Obama ignoring advice. The Wall Street Journal reported today this:

President Barack Obama’s top military and intelligence advisers, convinced Russia won’t abide by a cease-fire in Syria, are pushing for ways to increase pressure on Moscow, including expanding covert military assistance for some rebels now taking a pounding from Russian airstrikes.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter; Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan have voiced increasingly tough views in White House meetings, calling for new measures to “inflict real pain on the Russians,” a senior administration official said.

The Journal story explains the concerns voiced by the Pentagon:

At one point last week, the Pentagon came close to withdrawing its representatives from the cease-fire talks after the Russians claimed military cooperation between the U.S. and Russia was part of the closed-door discussions, according to senior administration officials.

Mr. Carter was upset about the Russian claims because he had explicitly ruled out such discussions, the officials said.

The Pentagon believes Russia was trying to try to drive a wedge between the U.S. and its coalition partners and to make it look like Washington would support Moscow’s military campaign in Syria and accept Mr. Assad.

While Russia was engaged in the cease-fire talks, U.S. officials say its war planes stepped up their attacks on positions held by moderate rebels. Russia maintains its airstrikes are targeting terrorist groups.

Mr. Kerry believes Monday’s agreement has “a viable chance of succeeding,” according to a senior administration official close to the secretary.

In contrast, Mr. Carter told senior officials Monday that it won’t hold. “He thinks it’s a ruse,” a senior administration official said.

Mr. Obama has an absolute right to reject the advice he gets from his national security team, as he did in 2012. He’s the Commander in Chief. Indeed he has an absolute right to dismiss these officials and find ones more attuned to his desire to do next to nothing in Syria, and attuned to Mr. Kerry’s view that endless palaver with Sergei Lavrov will solve Syria.

But there are two other things to consider. First, it does seem that Mr. Obama has no national security advisers and never did–not if by that term we mean people whose advice he values and sometimes takes. It seems that the pattern is simpler: they offer advice, he rejects it, and takes his own counsel. Constitutionally quite sound. In practice, we can now see after seven years, dangerous.

Second, what has been the real impact, in Syria, of Mr. Obama’s certitude about his own path? 350,000 dead, ten million refugees. And what has been the real substance of U.S. policy? Perhaps the best way to answer the question is by quoting Fred Hof, who was Mr. Obama’s Special Adviser for Syria until he resigned. Were a history of the Syria conflict written today, Hof said, it would have to contain these words:

“During all of the years of Assad regime mass terror, homicide, and collective punishment—practices supported by and participated in by its foreign enablers—the United States failed to protect a single Syrian inside Syria. It did not even try.”

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  • Posted by Tyler P. Harwell

    I think we can count on the nationalist rebels we once claimed to support to stop fighting, so long as they are not attacked. They have nothing left to fight with, nor to eat. They are surrounded. They are defeated. Jabhat al Nusra will probably lay low for the same reasons.

    The question is, will Russia stop seeking to destroy them ? If so, there is your ceasefire. But query, does a ceasefire mean an end to sieges ? No. Does it mean an end to troop movements ? No.

    Will there be a ceasefire in the south ? The Iranians, Hezbollah, and allied Iraqi Shiite militias are in the process of forcing a population that is now trapped, refugees, fighters, and all, up against the fence with Israel, and through it in to the occupied Golan. That is their present war aim. If the Russians stop bombing and shelling, does that necessarily mean Hezbollah will let up ?

    B. Netanyahu was on the phone to Putin yesterday, trying to figure the answer to this question out. I doubt it helped any. If refugees are so driven – and they may already, there is a news black out – it is likely that Israel will strike front line Iranian positions. Then there will be no ceasefire. There will be a new war.

    Two things seem fairly certain. The Turks have declared they will continue to attack one group the US supports: the Syrian Kurds. And ISIS will continue to attack everyone else. Where they can not advance or are defeated, they will resort to bombing like the ones in Damascus last week.

    Additionally, Erdogan has said Turkey will not let Azaz fall.

    All in all, I would say the chances of a ceasefire are slim.

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