Yesterday, Leon Panetta testified that he and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff backed a plan to aid selected groups fighting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Reportedly, the strategy was developed by then-CIA Director Petraeus and supported by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
President Obama rejected the plan, however. The Washington Post’s editors, citing reporting by the New York Times, attribute the decision to Obama’s re-election campaign, during which he assured voters that “the tide of war is receding.” After the election, Petraeus resigned, Clinton became ill, and the plan was not revived.
But, as the Post acknowledges, Obama’s disinclination to become involved in Syria isn’t just political — it has both ideological and pragmatic components. Obama is not an interventionist and he reportedly is concerned that intervening in Syria might make matters worse, by making the fighting even more bloody or by paving the way for an extremist takeover.
The latter concern shouldn’t be dismissed. The CIA’s proposal to back certain rebel groups came last summer. By then, hard-core anti-American Islamists were ascendant within the rebel movement. Aiding more agreeable factions (and who can be sure how much more agreeable they really are) might have helped shift the balance. However, it might also have hastened the victory over Assad and his replacement by an opposition dominated by radical factions hostile to our interests and values.
If so, our involvement would have ill-served the U.S. and Syria. Remember that the fall of Assad doesn’t necessarily mean the end of bloodshed; it might mean the beginning of retribution against the minority groups that supported him.
In short, it’s not so clear what the right call was regarding Syria last summer, or what the right call is now.
Two things seem clear to me, though. First, early in the conflict, before the jihadists became ascendant, the Obama administration should have identified, backed, and armed more moderate factions. Second, in selecting among the undesirable options now available, the Obama administration shouldn’t be guided, as it seems to be, by domestic political considerations or by a presumption against the projection of U.S. influence through military means.