Militarizing the Conflict in Syria

Earlier this year, London’s Daily Telegraph reported on plans being developed within the U.S. State and Defense Departments to militarily intervene in Syria, independent of the UN, through a “Friends of Syria” coalition. They state that an unnamed State Department official has revealed “the debate in Washington has shifted away from diplomacy and towards more robust action,” and that Central Command “has begun a preliminary internal review of U.S. military capabilities in the region.” They quote the same official as saying: “The decision-makers have not determined we are at a point of no return…. There is still a window, it is just that that window is closing…. We definitely don’t want to militarize the situation. If it’s avoidable we are going to avoid it. But increasingly it looks like it may not be avoidable.” This bureaucratic move towards militarization had also taken place in London where it was reported that the Ministry of Defense and National Security Council were making plans for a NATO-sponsored “No Fly Zone” over Syria.

This reporting is the latest and most in depth on the Obama administrations contingency plans for regime change in Syria, a scenario that has been on the White House docket since last April 2011 when Obama issued an executive order leveling personal sanctions against three prominent Syrian officials, one of whom was the brother of President Assad. Concerning the Syrian leader, an unnamed White House Official stated at the time, “Don’t think for a second Bashar is not on our radar and that if these abuses continue we won’t sanction him.”

Obama’s bellicosity was backed up by a gaggle of prominent Senate hawks, most notably Joe Lieberman, John McCain, and Lindsey Graham. One day prior to the White House sanctions announcement, the three Senators released a joint statement calling on the president to, “take tangible diplomatic and economic measures to isolate and pressure the Assad regime, including through targeted sanctions against Assad himself and other regime officials who are responsible for gross human rights abuses.” While their statement also asked Obama to call for Assad to step down, it was clear that the Obama administration and the Senate hawks were close to lockstep in their thinking on Syria. Reporting on this new Syrian policy was Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy’s blog, The Cable. He wrote that in the past two weeks a White House “mood shift” on Syria had occurred, with President Assad no longer being seen as likely to reform. Then, “after a series of deliberations, culminating in a Deputies Committee meeting at the National Security Council last week, a new policy course was set.”

This new policy course revealed itself as summer began. In mid-May, another round of economic sanctions was leveled against top Syrian officials, this time including President Assad, as well as six of his top aides. Just as before, Obama’s Congressional flank was protected by the Senate hawks led by Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. One week prior to the second round of sanctions, Rubio sponsored a resolution urging President Obama to issue more sanctions against Syria, this time targeting the very top leadership. Rubio’s resolution was cosponsored by Senators John McCain, Joe Lieberman, and Ben Cardin. Internationally, the White House policy was buttressed by the European Union, which also issued sanctions against the Syrian government. At the same time, the rhetorical pressure against the Assad regime began to reflect this new policy, with Obama stating in a speech on May 17 that the Syrian people have demanded a transition to democracy and Assad was faced with a choice to “lead that transition or get out of the way.” Speaking to reporters at the State Department, Secretary of State Clinton added that: “Every day that goes by, the position of the government becomes less tenable and the demands of the Syrian people for change only grow stronger.”

As the summer heated up, so did Washington’s designs for Damascus. In June, reports began to come out that the Syrian army and populous were facing a battle with foreign fighters. An unnamed EU diplomat told the EU Observer that, “we have reports that Wahhabists [radical Sunni Islamists], who are not necessarily controlled by any state, are coming into Syria from Iraq and Saudi Arabia to create chaos. Inside Syria, there are snipers shooting at demonstrators who are not controlled by Assad but by the deep state, and other snipers who are shooting at both demonstrators and police.” There was also a claim, made months later, that beginning in April-May 2011, the NATO airbase at Incirlik, Turkey was being used as an arms-smuggling hub for Syrian opposition fighters, run by a defected Syrian army colonel, Riad al-Assad. This story was broken by FBI whistleblower-turned activist Sibel Edmonds, who is a native of Turkey.

By early July, the State Department was openly courting the Syrian opposition, with Ambassador Robert Ford making a much-publicized visit, accompanied by the French Ambassador, to meet anti-government protesters in Hama on July 7. A great deal of tension resulted from this visit, as it triggered a pro-Assad demonstration at the American and French embassies in Damascus where windows were broken, flags torn down, and walls covered with graffiti. Back in Washington, Secretary of State Clinton upped the ante once again, telling reporters, “President Assad is not indispensable and we have absolutely nothing invested in him remaining in power.” For his part, Ambassador Ford relayed his thoughts on the ordeal through a Facebook post (perhaps to posture himself as a protester and not a government man) where he wrote, “And how ironic that the Syrian government lets an anti-U.S. demonstration proceed freely while their security thugs beat down olive branch-carrying peaceful protesters elsewhere.”

By early August, Secretary of State Clinton was holding official meetings in Washington, DC with Syrian opposition figures. Herbert London, the president of the Hudson Institute, characterized the State Department as “betraying” the pro-Democracy forces within the opposition, writing: “Most of those invited, however, have links to the Muslim Brotherhood. Missing from the invitations are Kurdish leaders, Sunni liberals, Assyrians, and Christian spokespeople. According to various reports, the State Department made a deal with Turkey and Muslim Brotherhood representatives either to share power with Assad to stabilize the government or replace him if this effort fails.”

Then, on August 18, Obama and his NATO compatriots in London, Paris, and Berlin stated their desires bluntly—Assad must step down. “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside,” read a White House press release. Washington backed up its rhetoric by issuing yet another round of economic sanctions against Syria, this time with very broad dictates that seized all Syrian assets under U.S. jurisdiction, banned imports of Syrian oil, and banned any contact by American citizens with the Syrian government. Similar sanctions were also adopted by the European Union. The New York Times described this bout of hard-edged diplomacy as the culmination of a months-long debate, one that moved the Administration “from discussing whether to call for Mr. Assad’s ouster to discussing how to help bring it about, and what to do after that.” In short, it had become U.S. policy to destabilize the Syrian government.

It is at this juncture that the Obama administration crossed the Rubicon on the Syria situation. How long could it allow Assad to continue sitting in Damascus without committing military might to the problem? How strong were the words of the NATO alliance without the firepower of their fighter-squadrons and special forces? While Obama may give his new policy of destabilization time to play out, what would his deadline be before he turns to his National Security Advisor and says “protocol and law be damned, let’s go get this guy?”

Being more bellicose than the Democrats has been a plank of the GOP for the past decade and, due to the Obama administrations war-happy nature, Syria could be the only talking point where a Republican candidate could really hammer down on the “dovish” president. It appears that by calling for Assad’s ouster, the Obama administration backed itself into a corner, with the only way out being to bring about the fall of the Syrian government through one means or another.

Throughout the fall of 2011, groundwork was laid for the new policy of “helping to bring about” the fall of the Assad government. A semi-respectable opposition group was established, the Syrian National Council, led by a Paris-based exile, as well as an opposition militia, the Free Syrian Army. These groups were established as much for their public relations worth as their diplomatic value. The press, especially those relying on second-hand reports, need a good and evil dichotomy to report on, a brigade of “freedom fighters” to support against the brutal government thugs, and an “opposition leader” to quote on the political sanctity of whoever would replace Assad.

By the end of November, it was time to kick the policy into action. Reports began to filter out that NATO governments had set up three training camps for Syrian opposition fighters in Turkey, Jordan, and in the Lebanese town of Tripoli. The Turkish camp was located in the coastal town of Iskenderun in Turkey’s Hatay province, less than 60 miles from Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. The Jordanian camp was located in the town of al-Mafraq, seven miles from the Syrian border. Reports indicated that when U.S. troops were departing from Iraq, some planes went to Jordan where they set up at the al-Mafraq airbase, long a center for Jordanian plots against their northern neighbor. Additionally, 600 Libyan fighters—fresh from their march on Tripoli—were sent to Turkey, commanded by former al-Qaeda leader turned Libyan rebel commando Abdulhakim Belhadj. This came on top of reports from the Turkish daily Milliyet that France, Britain, and Turkey “had reached an agreement to send arms into Syria” and that the U.S. had been notified of the decision.

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer turned journalist, revealed in early December that two new “intelligence findings” had been signed in the White House, authorizing stepped up covert action against Damascus and Tehran. Later that month, Foreign Policy magazine described an NSC working group designed to aid the Syrian opposition that was put into action, led by NSC senior director Steve Simon and State Department official Frederic C. Hof.

It appears that Syria has become a crucial fulcrum for the White House, with the option of overt military intervention, on one side, and a continuation of diplomacy and covert action on the other. But Obama seems to be slipping closer towards militarization. Will he leave the Assad government in place, perhaps in the process giving up his own shot at a second term in the White House?


Evan Taylor is a graduate of Marlboro College, where he studied American foreign policy. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan where he conducts independent research.