Obama Officials Wonder: Why Won’t the Boss Stand Up to Putin?

Russia’s forces are on the attack in Syria; its hackers are monkeying with America’s election. And the president’s response is… well, there’s not much of one at all.

09.29.16 5:13 AM ET

Russia and Syria appeared to attack two more hospitals and a bakery in the already besieged eastern city of Aleppo on Wednesday, in an aggressive push to seize and starve the city—home to as many as 100,000 children—back into regime control.

So how will the Obama administration respond to an increasingly provocative Russia? For now, it won’t.

There is an unspoken understanding within the administration that despite the many provocations Russia has carried out in Syria, there will be no major American response, a position that increasingly is drawing the ire of top national security officials, three U.S. officials told The Daily Beast.

Adding to these officials’ frustration is that Russia’s aggression isn’t just contained to Syria. There is mounting evidence that Russia has been behind a series of computer hacks that intelligence officials believe are designed to meddle with U.S. elections in November.

Officials said they feared that the White House’s inaction could devolve into acquiescence in Syria, in Ukraine, and in cyberspace. On Wednesday, Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations reportedly laughed when asked about the hospital attack.

“Of course we are concerned about how far Russia will go,” one U.S. official explained to The Daily Beast. “And just as worrisome is what this is doing to U.S. credibility.”

Even members of the president’s party are speaking out on Capitol Hill about Russia’s seemingly unchecked aggression.

On one side of the divided national security community is the State Department and intelligence agencies, which are pushing for a greater response in Syria, especially to the ongoing Russian-led assault in eastern Aleppo, the officials said.

In the last 10 days, since the collapse of the latest ceasefire in Syria, Russia and Syria have mounted what residents call their most aggressive air campaign to date to reclaim Aleppo from opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Should the regime, with Russian help, take the city, it would be a major psychological and tactical victory for the Assad regime.

Members of the U.S. intelligence community are concerned about the implications of seemingly abandoning the opposition forces it backed in Syria, these officials said.

The State Department feels it has exhausted diplomatic negotiations with Russia over Syria and that the administration has given up on any chance of them bearing fruit, according to the officials. Even Secretary of State John Kerry, the eternal optimist that a deal with Russia is imminent, reached a point of “extreme frustration,” as one official put it Wednesday.

On the other side is a Pentagon arguing that any kind of intervention is too risky, backed by a White House that embraces any argument for not escalating U.S. involvement in Syria during the remaining four months of the administration. What if the U.S. set up a no-fly zone inside Syria and Russia violated it? Would the U.S. will be willing to go to war with Russia over that?

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!
By clicking "Subscribe," you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason

In a call Wednesday with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, Kerry “informed the Foreign Minister that the United States is making preparations to suspend U.S.-Russia bilateral engagement on Syria…unless Russia takes immediate steps to end the assault on Aleppo and restore the cessation of hostilities,” according to a State Department readout of the call.

In other words: Kerry closed the door on talking with the Russians.

Stuck in the middle of the U.S. government divide is half of Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, besieged in an assault that has appalled even those accustomed to the savagery of war. Syrian regime and Russian strikes have hit hospitals, aid workers, food supplies, and civilians. According to one report, at least 96 children have been killed in eastern Aleppo since Friday.

Regardless, the U.S. should focus on defeating the self-proclaimed Islamic State, the administration has concluded.

It is arguably the continuation of the lessons learned by the Obama administration after its 2011 intervention in Libya—to intervene is to own the outcome of a military campaign. The president has said he is committed to getting the United States out of wars in the Middle East and not becoming entangled in another country’s civil war.

Many inside the Pentagon do not believe the outcome in Aleppo affects the war against ISIS, which is the only mission the president has assigned to the military. Notably, no one inside the Pentagon leadership is urging for an expanded U.S. mission in Syria.

Russia’s intervention in Syria is “not affecting our war on ISIL, but it is contributing to a prolongation of the Syrian civil war, which is a tragic thing,” Secretary of Defense Ash Carter told U.S. troops Tuesday, using the government’s preferred acronym for the terror group.

But others said the ongoing conflict is fertile ground for both ISIS and al Qaeda, which has gained ground in Syria during the civil war.

“Anyone who thinks ISIS can be defeated without solving the failed state in Syria is ignoring the last 25 years of American foreign policy,” a fourth U.S. official told The Daily Beast.

As the war rages in Syria, top members of Congress have vented their frustration with the White House for not publicly challenging Russia for another type of provocative act: the hacking of emails from the Democratic National Committee, which were subsequently given to WikiLeaks, as well as computer intrusions at other political organizations and the email accounts of prominent officials.

“It’s not for lack of evidence” that the White House hasn’t called out Russian President Vladimir Putin, Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told The Daily Beast. “I think the evidence is very clear.” Schiff and his fellow committee members, as well as the members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, have been briefed by U.S. intelligence officials on the suspected Russian cyber operations.

Behind the scenes, there is little doubt that Russia was behind the operations. Two U.S. intelligence officials told The Daily Beast that there is effectively a consensus on the issue and has been since the hack was revealed last summer, but that the administration has been reluctant to call out Russia for a reason: What comes next.

“I think they are both weighing the policy implications of naming Russia as well as considering whether they’d take additional steps beyond naming and shaming,” Schiff said. When President Obama called out North Korea for hacking Sony Pictures over the release of a satirical film, those additional steps included sanctioning North Korean officials and launching limited cyber attacks on the country’s computer networks.

There was little consequence for those actions. North Korea is already sanctioned to the hilt, and the cyber attacks were designed to send a message, not start a new conflict.

But poking the Russian bear could prompt Putin to respond. What starts as retaliation for politically motivated hacking could escalate into a more dangerous confrontation between Russia and the United States.

A former U.S. official who has remained close to the issue of election security in light of the Russian hacks said there has not been a fundamental shift in the administration’s position. There is little doubt that Russia is to blame, but coming out and saying that would risk igniting a new conflict, the former official said.

“The administration is always mindful of the downside consequences,” Schiff said. But, he cautioned, if the United States doesn’t send a forceful signal that interfering with its elections won’t be tolerated, the Russians will take that as “an open door” inviting them to engage in further mischief.

Law enforcement and intelligence officials have been studying the attacks and are providing information to the White House so that the president can craft a response.

On Wednesday, FBI Director James Comey testified that the suspected Russian hacking was “something we take extremely seriously” and “is something that the FBI is spending a lot of time on right now to understand” so that Obama is equipped with the right information “to make the appropriate response.”

Comey also signaled that the threat to the U.S. election system may not be diminishing. There have been “some attempted intrusions beyond those we knew about in July and August” against state voter registration systems, Comey told the House Judiciary Committee, referring to an earlier alert from the FBI that hackers had penetrated the registration systems in Arizona and Illinois. Comey and others have stressed that this isn’t the same as hacking into voting machines and manipulating ballot counts but that nevertheless such operations represent a threat to the security of the election system and could undermine public confidence in the legitimacy of the results.

Should Obama publicly point the finger at Putin, the administration will almost certainly have to release some of the technical evidence that led to its conclusion. That’s what happened with the Sony hack, when Comey was compelled to present some forensic details in order to bolster the administration’s claims, which technical experts initially greeted with skepticism.

In July, Schiff and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democratic member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, urged Obama in a letter to “consider declassifying and releasing… any Intelligence Community assessments regarding the incident, including any that might illuminate potential Russian motivations for what would be an unprecedented interference in a U.S. Presidential race…”

Last week, they took their concerns a step further in a joint statement, which said that “based on briefings we have received, we have concluded that the Russian intelligence agencies are making a serious and concerted effort to influence the U.S. election.” The lawmakers said the Russian operation was designed to “sow doubt about the security of our election and may well be intended to influence the outcomes of the election” and that “orders for the Russian intelligence agencies to conduct such actions could come only from very senior levels of the Russian government.”

On Tuesday, BuzzFeed News reported that the White House asked Schiff and Feinstein to delay the release of their statement, which amounted to a high-level accusation against Russia by the United States, if not by the Obama administration directly.

Asked if there was a point at which Obama would have no choice but to publicly respond to the Russian hacking, Schiff told The Daily Beast, “I think we’re already at that point.”

“But,” he added, “certainly if the meddling becomes even more pronounced and even more severe, they’ll be forced to act.”