Global Pairings, Rethinking America

Obama’s Syria Policy: The Illusion of US Power in the Middle East

The cost of letting US policy be determined primarily by the ambitions of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Credit: MattiaATH


  • Why is the Obama administration able to do nothing to stop the Russian military escalation in Aleppo?
  • The US wanted to play the great power role in Syria without really getting its hands dirty .
  • The US never did anything to pressure its allies to cut off arms supply to militant groups.
  • The Obama administration has allowed its Syria policy to be determined by the ambitions of its Sunni allies.
  • The US, in a way, provided the political-diplomatic cover for the buildup of the al-Nusra Front.

The U.S.-Russian ceasefire agreement has collapsed and the the massive Russian bombing campaign in Aleppo has escalated. As a result, the frustration of hawks in Washington over the failure of the Obama administration to use military power in Syria has risen to new heights.

But it is the Obama administration’s role in Syria over the past five years that has led to its present inability to do anything about the Russian military escalation in Aleppo.

The problem is that the administration has pursued policy objectives that it lacked the means to achieve. When Obama called on President Bashar al-Assad to step down in September 2011, the administration believed, incredibly, that he would do so of his own accord.

As former Hillary Clinton aide and Pentagon official, Derek Chollet, reveals in his new book, The Long Game, “Early in the crisis, most officials believed Assad lacked the necessary cunning and fortitude to stay in power.”

Administration policymakers began using the phrase “managed transition” in regard to U.S. policy toward the government, according to Chollet.

The phrase perfectly reflected the vaulting ambitions of policymakers who were eager to participate in a regime change. They saw this regime change as a big win for the United States and Israel and a big loss for Iran.

US’s “managed transition”

Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, would be out front pushing for a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for a “transition” in Syria. But U.S. regional Sunni allies – Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia – would provide the arms to Syrian fighters.

The only U.S. role in the war would be a covert operation devised by then CIA director David Petraeus to provide intelligence and logistical assistance to those allies, to get arms to the groups chosen by the Sunni regimes that would pay for them.

Of course there were those, led by Clinton herself, who wanted to go further and create a “no-fly zone” where the insurgents could be trained and operate freely.

But Obama, supported by the U.S. military leadership, would not support that invitation to war. The US was going to play the great power role in Syria without getting its hands dirty with the arming of an opposition force.

But within a few months it was already clear that the administration’s “managed transition” had gone terribly wrong. Al-Qaeda, firmly ensconced in Iraq, had begun to show its hand in a series of attacks in Damascus and elsewhere in Syria.

Rising power of extremist groups

By August 2012, it was widely recognised that the jihadists were rapidly taking over the anti-Assad war. Ed Hussein of the Council on Foreign Relations observed in the Christian Science Monitor that Syria was becoming “a magnet for jihadis globally,” just as Iraq had become after the U.S. invasion.

The Defense Intelligence Agency identified al-Qaeda, the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood as the three major strains in the rapidly growing anti-Assad war.

Further, the U.S. administration very well knew that Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia were not sending weapons, including shoulder-launched anti-tank RPGs, to secular groups. They were sending these weapons to Islamic extremist groups in Syria, who were bound to work with al-Qaeda and other jihadists.

Chollet, who was working on Syria for Clinton’s policy planning office and later moved to the Pentagon, recalls that the administration was “concerned” that “the wrong elements of the oppositions – the extremists, some affiliated with al-Qaeda were being strengthened.”

“Skin in the game”

One might expect an administration to, at this point, halt the whole thing and clamp down on its allies, especially Turkey, which was the main entry point for arms pouring into Syria.

Instead, as Chollet recounts, Clinton and the then CIA director, Leon Panetta, were pushing for a major CIA program to create, train and arm a Syrian opposition force. This, not because it would prove decisive to the outcome but because it would give the United States “leverage” with its Sunni allies by acquiring “skin in the game.”

Obama rejected that argument about “leverage” in 2012, but reversed himself in 2013 under pressure of the allegations on the government of use of chemical weapons.

Like so much of what passes for justification of aggressive U.S. military and paramilitary activities around the world, the argument made no sense.

The leverage that the United States has with Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia is in the range of political, military and economic benefits that each of them derives from a formal or de facto alliance with the United States.

US looking the other way

I asked Chollet recently why the CIA’s ginning up our own anti-Assad forces in Syria would give the United States more “leverage” over Sunni allies? His reply was: “Because then the whole thing would collapse around us!”

But of course the growing US “skin in the game” didn’t give the administration leverage over the Sunni allies’ policies in Syria. It did exactly the opposite.

It made the United States complicit in the Sunni project of using the jihadists and salafists to maximise the pressure for the overthrow of the Syrian regime.

Not a shred of evidence has ever surfaced suggesting that the US has done anything to pressure its allies to cut off the channels of arms that were strengthening the al-Qaeda-linked militant group, al-Nusra Front.

As a result, the Sunni arms-to-jihadists strategy and the U.S. support for “moderates” were two parts of a broader political-diplomatic strategy of pressure on Assad to step down.

As former U.S. ambassador, Robert Ford observed in February 2015, “For a long time the administration had “looked the other way” while the U.S.- supported forces were coordinating with Nusra Front.

Russian intervention

That strategy was upended when the Russians intervened forcefully in September 2015. Obama, who was firmly committed to avoiding any direct conflict with Russia over Syria, vetoed any threat to use force in Syria in response to the Russian intervention.

For almost a year, Obama relied on cooperation with the Russians as its primary political-diplomatic strategy for managing the conflict, producing two ceasefires that ultimately failed.

The fate of those two ceasefires has revealed more fully the illusory nature of the great power role the US has pretended to play this past year.

Kerry committed the United States to two ceasefire agreements based on the premise that the United States could separate the armed groups that the CIA had armed and trained from the Nusra Front-led military command.

The reality was that the United States had no real power over those groups because they were more heavily dependent on their jihadist allies than on the United States for their continued viability.

But underlying that failure is a much larger reality. It is that the Obama administration has allowed its policy in Syria to be determined primarily by the ambitions of its Sunni allies to overthrow Assad.

The administration has claimed that it never favored the destruction of Syrian institutions, but that claim is contradicted by its acquiescence in the Sunni allies’ support of Nusra Front.

US’s inability to break alliances

The United States complicity in the hundreds of thousands of deaths in the Syrian War, and now in the massive civilian casualties in the Russian bombing of Aleppo, does not just consist in its refusal to go to war in Syria. Rather, it is because the US provided the political-diplomatic cover for the buildup of the al-Nusra Front and its larger interlocking system of military commands.

A U.S. administration that played a true superpower role would have told its allies not to start a war in Syria by arming jihadists, using the fundamentals of the alliance as the leverage.

But that would have meant threatening to end the alliance itself if necessary – something no U.S. administration is willing to do.

Hence the paradox of U.S. power in the Middle East: In order to play the role of hegemon in the region, with all those military bases, the United States must allow itself to be manipulated by its weaker allies.

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About Gareth Porter

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and historian who specializes in U.S. national security policy. [United States]

Responses to “Obama’s Syria Policy: The Illusion of US Power in the Middle East”

Archived Comments.

  1. On October 10, 2016 at 9:07 am grumium responded with... #

    We could leave the fighting to the proxies.

  2. On October 11, 2016 at 9:16 am oya bain responded with... #

    Why did the U.S. want to destroy Syria, an independent nation?
    We have learned from the wishful thinking of Arab Spring, we cannot bring order and democracy to Middle East countries by artificial means, outside interventions and covert operations. Iraq, Libya are prime examples. All we bring death and destruction.
    Why this constant meddling?
    Sykes and Picot again? No lessons learned in 100 years.?
    Another issue is the interests of the countries mentioned, such as Turkey and the realities on the ground are much different from those of the U.S. We are 7000 miles away, safely secluded by two oceans, and superficially informed, and lost in misguided policies.
    For example.five years ago, President Erdogan wanted to work with the U.S. and he proposed a no fly zone. This would have allowed to train decent anti Assad forces, take care of the millions of the refugees also monitor the long porous border between Syria and Turkey.. Nothing done..Indifference,ineptitude, arrogance..
    There are similar examples too long to count here.
    On the other hand, Obama understood the futility and disasters of U.S.meddling in the Middle East and wanted to start a sensible foreign policy. However it was done too fast and the withdrawal symptoms now (no pun intended) are terrible and beyond control .
    So let us not unfairly blame the countries mentioned in the article. Let us hope the next president brings some order and justice to the U.S.foreign policy and get away from the blind and self righteous meddling of the past decades.

  3. On October 13, 2016 at 10:07 am diamondvajra responded with... #

    this speaks to all american thinking in foreign policy dating from the vietnam war era. this also speaks to the arming of the mujahhadin in afghanistan to fight the russians. americans get “played” because americans are naive, obama is naive. putin, on the other hand is not. he sees the like minded and he offers them help. if the world was divided into the oppressors and the oppressed we would see mr. putin firmly in the oppressor camp. i guess part of the problem with the west is that they have no stomach for barrel bombs, chemical weapons etc etc. mr putin, as we saw in chechenya, has not only a stomach for this but eats this with his full course meal….

  4. On October 13, 2016 at 10:11 am diamondvajra responded with... #

    the mid east is a quagmire. there is a reason that there has been so little advancement there and so much disturbance. it’s hard to live in the world and it’s hard to make choices. it’s hard to be inflexible and rigid. it’s also hard to have no center. i think if we lived less in our heads and more in our hearts, shutting out the noises of those in power, we might make better choices. i think that policy makers develop some sort of blindness when confronting issues. they think too much and then not enough

  5. On October 16, 2016 at 5:24 pm Deplorable_Pam responded with... #

    Hillary Clinton will not, NOT meddle. With all this bs diversion going on from the Clinton campaign and the dummy Trump falling for it. We’re talking about 11 yr old lewd comments that have no bearing on anyone and certainly have no effect on US policy or National Security.
    Hopefully people will look past all the idiotic statements and bluster of Trump and look at his policies. He’s not into “Nation building” and intervening where we don’t belong. He’s focused solely on the U.S. and digging us out of the mess that the globalist left is trying to entrench us in. They’ve nearly succeeded too. WikiLeaks finally found and published the truth. Hillary Clinton wants an “open market, open borders” society. Instead of the corrupt msm focusing on this and explaining the ramifications of such a policy, we’re talking about stupid shit, just as Hillary wants. No borders, no nation. There’s 600 million people just waiting for a policy like that. TPP, which she’s fully endorsed, (before she didn’t) is turning the U.S. into the disastrous EU. Hillary Clinton is not trying to act in the best interest of the U.S. she’s acting in the interest of Hillary Clinton.

  6. On October 17, 2016 at 7:03 am Bob Stennett responded with... #

    Our foreign policy is being run by someone who should have retired when the Berlin Wall came down, Zbigniew_Brzezinski. He hates Russia.