Risky Shift

How the Obama Administration Reversed Course on Syria Strikes

Eleanor Clift and Josh Rogin report on how the Obama administration shifted course on Syria strikes.

After months of slow-walking President Obama’s commitment to retaliate against Syria for crossing a “red line” in using chemical weapons against civilians, the administration suddenly went into overdrive over the weekend, moving in a period of 48 hours from tempered outrage last Wednesday—when images of children dying from an apparent nerve agent first surfaced—to gearing up for a likely military response that could come within days. For a president determined to avoid being pulled into yet another conflict in the Middle East, it is a reversal filled with risk, but given those advising him, a team dominated by liberal interventionists, the turnabout shouldn’t be a surprise.

By Saturday morning, when Obama met with his advisers in the White House Situation Room, his position had already hardened. Multiple reports of chemical-weapons abuse were pouring into the White House. Doctors Without Borders reported treating 3,600 people at three hospitals. Seventy of its 100 volunteers had fallen ill, one had died, and the organization was scrambling to get more supplies of atropine, the antidote. By Saturday night, the decision had been made to assemble a coalition of the willing that would bypass the U.N. Security Council and its certain veto by Russia and China.

Early Sunday morning, according to an account in The Wall Street Journal, National Security Adviser Susan Rice sent an email to U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power and other key players that said of the U.N. inspection team on the ground in Damascus, “The investigation is … too late, and will actually tell us what we already know: CW was used,” with CW meaning chemical weapons. “It won’t even tell us by whom, which we already know.” Various news outlets reported that the administration tried to abort the U.N. inspection team on the grounds that it already knew with certainty the Syrian regime was behind the chemical attacks and that evidence at the sites the team would be visiting had been degraded by subsequent bombardments.

Before a packed briefing room at the White House on Tuesday, press secretary Jay Carney repeated the administration’s assertion that there is no doubt chemical weapons were used on a massive scale on August 21 outside Damascus, that only the regime has the rocket capacity to deliver them, and that a response is essential to uphold international norms, including a chemical-weapons convention prohibiting such weapons signed by 198 nations (but not Syria). Obama is assessing the nature of that response with his team, with one caveat: “No boots on the ground,” Carney said. “Boots in the air?” a reporter asked, to which Carney replied, “Yes, theoretically speaking.”

The decision to use force is being driven by what one foreign-policy official calls the “humanitarian hawks,” Powers, Rice, and now Secretary of State John Kerry, whose emotional denunciation of the use of chemical weapons as a “moral obscenity” took the rhetoric up several levels, signaling the administration’s seriousness. Kerry has reportedly been advocating for air strikes for more than two months and supported sending lethal aid to the rebels long before Obama signed off on it after the first red line was crossed earlier this year. The aid was stalled on Capitol Hill with the rebels getting “nothing more than pea shooters,” says one of Obama’s many critics in the foreign-policy establishment, adding that Kerry and the others have been “bumping up against a president trying to preserve what he thinks is popular American reluctance to engage in Syria under any circumstances.” A Reuters/Ipsos poll finds that 60 percent of Americans oppose U.S. intervention in Syria even if deadly chemical weapons are used on civilians. Only 9 percent think Obama should take military action.

Rice has long favored a more interventionist policy in Syria. As U.N. ambassador, she was said to have supported a push for a limited no-fly zone, while Power, then working in the White House, argued internally for more aggressive action to protect civilians, to no avail. Now they are part of the team supporting a quick response to the August 21 attack. “Reports devastating: 100s dead in streets, including kids killed by chem. Weapons. UN must get there fast & if true, perps must face justice,” Power tweeted on August 21, declaring that chemical weapons were used only hours after the attack. Five days later, she laid blame at the feet of the regime. “Haunting images of entire families dead in their beds. Verdict is clear: Assad has used CWs against civilians in violation of int’l norm.”

Within the administration, there is pushback from U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who is asking the questions he should ask and not getting satisfactory answers. “What do we expect the region and particularly the Syrian conflict to look like three months from now if we strike this week or next?” asks a retired naval flag officer familiar with how the military approaches a proposed intervention. There is widespread concern and anxiety in Washington that the White House has not thought through all the ramifications of unleashing American firepower to send Assad a message and that there is a lot of wishful thinking in imagining that a surgical strike will deter the future use of chemical weapons, as opposed to unleashing new horrors that could escalate into a widening war.

In a town full of Middle East experts, the White House team seems curiously lacking in senior-level expertise. “Find me anyone in that team who knows the Arab world, and I’ll buy you a lollipop,” says one disgruntled former official. “Why are they shocked that Assad would use chemical weapons?”

The administration appears united behind Obama, but with an undercurrent of ambivalence that the president no doubt shares. Will lobbing cruise missiles into Syria only make a bad situation worse? Can the president remain true to his apparent goal of limited intervention, steering clear of the “shock and awe” regime change that led to a decade of war and heartbreak in Iraq? “If it’s to deter and degrade, I’m all in favor,” says Marc Ginsberg, a former State Department official and ambassador to Morocco. That’s the theory, but pulling it off will require a sustained diplomatic effort to fill the vacuum and pursue U.S. interests once the bombs stop falling.