Are some members of the Obama administration starting to question the White House strategy on Syria? If the leakage coming out of the press over the last several weeks is accurate, the answer is a resounding yes.
In an article about President Obama’s Syria dilemma in The Los Angeles Times, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is reported to believe that the plan to combat both the Islamic State and the Assad regime is suffering from a severe lack of clarity and focus. “Pentagon concerns have grown so sharp,” the Times reportedon October 30, “that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel sent a two-page memo to the White House last week warning that the overall plan could collapse because U.S. intentions toward Syrian President Bashar Assad are unclear.”
CNN posted a similar story on the same day, with a little more detail as to what Hagel’s memo to National Security Adviser Susan Rice consisted of. “The focus of the memo,” according to an administration official, “was "we need to have a sharper view of what to do about the Assad regime." The official refused to provide additional details, but did not disagree with the notion that Hagel feels the U.S. is risking its gains in the war against ISIS if adjustments are not made.”
For an administration that suffered a huge electoral setback during the midterms, the existence of a critical memo by the Pentagon’s top civilian official—and the reporting of that memo in the news media—is the last thing that the White House wanted. Fortunately for the president and his national security team, the contents of that memo have not been disclosed, and are unlikely to be absent a massive breach of administration protocol. Yet just because Hagel’s memo hasn’t been released doesn’t mean that we can’t speculate about what the Defense Secretary was trying to drill home to the White House.
Here’s my guess at what it says:
Susan, to put the matter is the clearest terms possible, our policy on Syria needs a serious rethink and an in-depth inter-agency review if we have any chance at accomplishing the twin goals that we have set out: degrading and destroying the Islamic State and transitioning Syria into a democratic state that respects the rights of its people. This review should include, but not be limited to, what our efforts have accomplished thus far; what more can be done to persuade U.S. allies in the region that an increase in their contributions to the anti-ISIL campaign is in their interest; how we can broaden and sustain the alliance that has been assembled over the past three months; and whether the United States needs to do more to ensure that the Assad regime is weakened to a point where political negotiations inside Syria become possible.
Although the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is clearly our main line of effort, both militarily and diplomatically, I remain deeply concerned that the administration—the National Security Council, the Pentagon and State Department included—has relegated the ouster of Bashar al-Assad and his regime to a distant second in the list of overall priorities for Syria. However brutal and inhumane ISIL is, it is the Assad regime that has killed far more civilians over the past three and a half years. Current government figures estimate that approximately 200,000 Syrians have been killed since the war erupted in 2011, and that number is most likely a conservative estimate. Our Arab partners are ahead of the curve on the Assad problem and have vocally expressed their reservations to me in private that the United States does not appear committed to transitioning Syria to a post-Assad future. The administration’s actions since the anti-ISIL campaign started on August 7 have done nothing to alleviate those assumptions.
Despite our best intentions, we are effectively helping Bashar al-Assad, his army, and his militia forces in the broader civil war. By bombing ISIL targets from the air, we are weakening the biggest military threat that the Assad regime faces on the battlefield. This does not mean that we should slow down the pace of U.S. and coalition operations against ISIL targets in Syria, but rather that we should redouble our efforts in order to accomplish an objective that the president himself articulated over three years ago: the removal of Assad from power.
Bashar al-Assad is clearly taking advantage of our efforts to eradicate ISIL from Syria. Since late September, the Syrian Air Force has moved assets from the eastern section of the country towards the populous western corridor between Damascus and the Latakia coastline, encircling Aleppo and deploying regime aircraft to bomb and strafe positions held by the Free Syrian Army. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has documented over 400 barrel bomb airstrikes in a two-week period, many of which were aimed in areas with a significant moderate rebel and civilian presence. Over the short-term, Assad is in fact improving his military position on the ground.
As long as this situation persists, our Arab allies (particularly Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Qatar) will continue to doubt our resolve in getting rid of the Assad regime, and this will no doubt complicate our efforts to maintain the regional coalition that we have built to tackle ISIL. Turkey and Saudi Arabia will be more likely to contribute and cooperate if they see Washington taking a firm stance on Syria’s long-term future.
I request an urgent meeting of the National Security Council principles to discuss all of these concerns at the earliest possible date, with the following questions in mind:
1- Are we still committed to forcing Bashar al-Assad to step down?
2- Is the train-and-equip program scheduled to begin in Saudi Arabia and Turkey large enough to make a difference in the battle against ISIL.
3- Should those being trained by our forces have an expanded mandate to fight Assad regime forces as well as ISIL militants, and if so, how much additional funding will be required and how many Syrian moderate forces will need to be trained and deployed to meet this change in mission?
4- How can we better coordinate and communicate with remnants of the Free Syrian Army who are already engaged in combat on the ground? If we aren’t sufficiently sharing intelligence with them, why continue to provide small arms and non-lethal equipment to these ad-hoc forces?