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Obama's Syria policy and the illusion of US power in the Middle East

By       Message Gareth Porter       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink

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From Middle East Eye

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One of Obama's biggest failures is letting his policy in Syria be determined primarily by the ambitions of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey


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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.

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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.

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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 Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood as the three major strains in the rapidly growing anti-Assad war.

"Skin in the game"

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Furthermore the administration knew that Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia were sending weapons, including shoulder-launched anti-tank RPGs not to secular groups but to Islamic extremist groups in Syria, who were bound to work with al-Qaeda and other jihadists. Chollet, who was working on Syria for Clinton's policy planning office and later moved to the Pentagon, recalls that the administration was "concerned" that "the wrong elements of the opposition -- the extremists, some affiliated with al-Qaeda, were being strengthened."

One might expect the administration then to call a halt to the whole thing and clamp down on its allies, especially Turkey, which was the main entry point for arms pouring into Syria. Instead, as Chollet recounts, Clinton and the then CIA director, Leon Panetta, were pushing for a major CIA program to create, train and arm a Syrian opposition force -- not because it would prove decisive to the outcome but because it would give the United States "leverage" with its Sunni allies by acquiring "skin in the game."

Obama rejected that argument about "leverage" in 2012, but then reversed himself in 2013 under the pressure of the allegations of use of chemical weapons by the government. Like so much of what passes for justification of aggressive US military and paramilitary activities around the world, the argument made no sense. The leverage the United States has with Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia is the range of political-military and economic benefits that each of them derives from a formal or de facto alliance with the United States.

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Gareth Porter (born 18 June 1942, Independence, Kansas) is an American historian, investigative journalist and policy analyst on U.S. foreign and military policy. A strong opponent of U.S. wars in Southeast Asia, and the Middle East, he has also (more...)
 

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