Anyone who doubts the dangerous consequences of White House waffling on Syria should note some startling statements by U.S. officials in recent days.
Let’s start at the top. After two years of insistence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must go, the White House recently started publicly hedging. No doubt that was a reaction to the fact that Assad, armed and aided by Russia, Iran, and the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah, has been scoring major victories against the Syrian rebels.
The new White House language, as stated by press secretary Jay Carney, claims that Assad “in our view, will never rule all of Syria again.” This apparently means the administration thinks Assad will continue controlling at least some or even much of the country.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was even more pointed at his confirmation hearings. When asked by Sen. Lindsey Graham. R-S.C., whether Assad would be in power a year from now “if we don’t change our game,” Dempsey replied: “I think likely so.”
These admissions reflect a critical failure of U.S. policy, which was supposedly intended to help more moderate rebels and organize them into a coherent fighting force. The goal was to isolate jihadi militias, while weakening Assad enough militarily to push him into serious peace talks.
But the administration refused, until last month, to give military aid to relatively moderate rebel groups, even those vetted by the CIA. Obama vetoed a plan put forward last summer by then-CIA chief David Petraeus, and backed by Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, and Dempsey, to arm such groups — apparently fearing military aid might be diverted to jihadis.
Yet the most militant jihadis had no trouble getting arms and funds from wealthy Arab supporters. Even Arab Gulf allies such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar often armed Islamist militants. The upshot: Better-armed radicals flourished. Al-Qaida-linked groups flush with foreign volunteers, and equally militant local groups such as the Nusra Front, have taken control of many towns and villages. They are even killing moderate rebel commanders.
“The reality is that, left unchecked, they will become bigger,” said David Shedd, deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, at the Aspen Security Forum recently. “Over the last two years they’ve grown in size, they’ve grown in capability, and ruthlessly have grown in effectiveness.”
In other words, the U.S. policy of withholding heavy weapons from more moderate groups has led to the opposite of what was intended — the strengthening of radical jihadis. Al-Qaida has a new base, is training a new generation of militants, and is stirring up new sectarian warfare in neighboring Iraq and Lebanon. Meantime, a flood of nearly two million desperate Syrian refugees is so destabilizing Lebanon and Jordan that, according to Dempsey, Jordan’s King Abdullah fears he could lose power.
The humanitarian catastrophe continues to build. What’s especially surprising is the U.S. failure to give strong backing to a Syrian umbrella military organization it helped set up last December. Known as the Supreme Military Council, the group is headed by a moderate Syrian defector, Gen. Salim Idriss.
The idea was for Washington to ensure that Saudi and Qatari military aid went through Idriss and the council, thus bolstering non-jihadi forces and molding disparate militias into a more effective fighting force. Instead, the delivery of even nonlethal aid was delayed for months. Then, last month, the White House finally decided to permit the CIA to deliver small arms and train a limited number of rebels — a move that experts agree is likely to have little impact against a regime using bombs, missiles, and heavy artillery.
Even this limited aid (approved recently by House and Senate intelligence committees) has yet to be delivered. There is no sign the White House will approve the heavy weapons — such as anti-aircraft missiles that the rebels urgently need to prevent major defeats.
A bitter Idriss asked, in an interview this week with a British newspaper: “What are our friends in the West waiting for? For Iran and Hezbollah to kill all the Syrian people?”
It’s understandable that the White House doesn’t want to involve U.S. military forces directly in the Syrian war. But it’s hard to understand a policy that has enabled a new al-Qaida base to take root in Syria and endangers Arab allies.
TRUDY RUBIN is a columnist and board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.