As the Islamic State terror group continues to make territorial gains across Iraq and Syria, experts have blasted President Barack Obama’s strategy for beating the militants.
Critics have called out Obama’s seemingly myopic view of the Islamic State’s increasingly sophisticated strategy, and some have suggested that the US consider committing ground troops to the fight in Iraq.
And while many have pointed out that the US toppling of Saddam Hussein likely contributed to the rise of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh), Obama’s role the Syrian conflict played is often overlooked.
PBS Frontline aired a documentary Wednesday night that examined both the Syrian civil war and ISIS. Robert Ford, who was the US ambassador to Syria from 2010 to 2014, told PBS that we’re out of good options for defeating ISIS — and the problem stretches back to decisions the Obama administration made about US involvement in the Syrian conflict years ago.
Speaking about the US plan to train thousands of moderate Syrians to fight ISIS, Ford did not sound optimistic.
“The State Department was proposing this kind of help back in 2012,” Ford told PBS. “I worry now that we’re too little and we’re too late.”
Ford agreed with interviewer Martin Smith that the Obama administration squandered a window of opportunity it had in 2012 and 2013.
When the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, the US was hesitant to arm moderate rebels over fears that the arms could fall into the hands of extremists. Ford argued that the US dragging its feet on the decision to aid moderate rebel groups was a mistake.
“The jihadi elements in Syria were a distinct minority in the Syrian armed opposition in late 2012 and going into 2013,” Ford told PBS. “My concern now is that we no longer have any good options. We no longer have any good options.”
Then, after clear evidence of chemical weapons in Syria emerged, White House officials in 2013 hinted at military intervention and the Pentagon began planning for which targets would be hit.
But Obama decided to seek Congressional approval for the planned military strike and ultimately, the Syrian regime agreed to a Russian-brokered deal to give up its sarin nerve gas to avoid a US strike.
Obama’s decision crushed nationalist rebel hopes and extremists used the new situation to their advantage. Early iterations of ISIS claimed that the US betrayed the rebels by backing out on the planned strike and radical militants marketed themselves as the only people the rebels could really count on to defeat Assad.
Obama has previously said that the notion that arming Syrian rebels early on would have made a difference has “always been a fantasy” because the opposition of “former doctors, farmers, pharmacists, and so forth” was fighting “a well-armed [Syrian] state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, [and] a battle-hardened Hezbollah.”
Fred Hof, a former special adviser for transition in Syria under then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, wrote in Politico last year that Obama’s characterization ignores “decades of universal conscription and mandatory military service in Syria” by characterising the armed opposition to the regime of Bashar al-Assad “as a hopeless collection of former butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers.”
Hof noted that the recommendation to arm to the moderate opposition was offered in some form not only by Clinton, “but by Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta, CIA Director David Petraeus, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey.”
Hof wrote that “had the requisite assistance started flowing two years ago, both Syria and Iraq would be in better places now.”
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