The startlingly simple reason Obama ignores Syria

U.S. President Barack Obama pauses during remarks at an Organising for Action summit in Washington April 23, 2015. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

While the US embassy in Syria calls outBashar al-Assad for acting as an air force for Islamic State, the Obama administration does not seem to be concerning itself with the Syrian regime.

“The President feels very strongly that the very significant problems that are faced by people in Syria, for example, are not problems that the United States is going to come in and solve for them,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said recently.

And it’s becoming clear that the Obama administration’s determination to secure a nuclear deal with Iran likely informed its decision to refrain from intervening in the Syrian civil war.

‘An Iranian sphere of influence’

“The administration’s Syria policy has been predicated on the White House’s desire for a deal with Iran and its care to accommodate Iranian interests in Syria, which he [Obama] saw as an Iranian sphere of influence,” Tony Badran, NOW columnist and research fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, told Business Insider via email.

The pattern has been emerging for years, and it’s accelerated ever since Assad crossed Obama’s supposed “red line” by using chemical weapons to kill 1,500 people in August 2013.

Syria Chemical Weapons
A man holds the body of a dead child among bodies of people activists say were killed by nerve gas in the Ghouta region, in the Duma neighbourhood of Damascus August 21, 2013. Syrian activists said at least 213 people, including women and children, were killed on Wednesday in a nerve gas attack by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces on rebel-held districts of the Ghouta region east of Damascus. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

After Obama announced on August 31, 2013, that he had decided to launch limited airstrikes inside Syria, based on Congressional approval, Iran “embarked on a PR offensive,” according to Badran, threatening to retaliate against America and Israel if any US-led attempts were made on Assad’s life.

The Obama administration subsequently began characterising Iran not only as a useful buffer between the US and Syria — the US reportedly urged both Iran and Russia to “reinforce” the US’ warnings to Assad — but also as a potential partner in getting Assad to stop slaughtering his people.

Throughout this period, the administration “may have been signalling to Tehran it had no desire to escalate beyond ‘limited and proportionate’ strikes related exclusively to Assad’s use of chemical weapons,” according to Badran.

The strikes never happened as Congressional approval was low and the US accepted a Russian-backed deal to remove Assad’s chemical weapons in return for not enforcing Obama’s red line.

Obama syria
Obama speaks about Syria next to Vice President Joe Biden (L) at the Rose Garden of the White House August 31, 2013, in Washington. Obama said on Saturday he had decided the United States should strike Syrian government targets in response to a deadly chemical weapons attack, but said he would seek a congressional vote for any military action. REUTERS/Mike Theiler

‘One motive was never included in the list’

The Syrian civil war broke out in March 2011 after Assad responded to peaceful protests with with tanks and bombs. By 2012, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Jordan were imploring Washington to counter Iranian intervention in Syria.

But Obama rejected a recommendation to arm and equip Syrian rebels in Jordan, even though it was supported by key officials, including CIA Director Gen. David Petraeus, Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey.

“Had the requisite assistance started flowing [in 2012], both Syria and Iraq would be in better places now,” Fred Hof, a former special adviser for transition in Syria under then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, wrote last year.

ISIS Islamic State Iraq Syria control

Questions arose about what had motivated Obama to deny the rebels weapons and training — questions that later re-emerged when he retreated so readily from his infamous “red line” in 2013.

“But one motive was never included in the list,” Michael Doran, former deputy assistant secretary of defence and a former senior director of the National Security Council, wrote in Mosaic. “Namely, his fear of antagonizing Iran.”

“For the longest time, it was simply assumed that Obama drew no connection between his Iran policy and his Syria policy,” Doran wrote. “This, however, was not the case. In fact, just as, from the beginning, he [Obama] showed deference to Iran on the nuclear front, he showed the same deference to the Iranian interest in Syria.”

Badran noted that when Obama did move to intervene against ISIS, “he reportedly sent letters to Iran’s Supreme Leader reassuring him that Assad would not be touched.”

Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei attends a meeting with high-ranking officials in Tehran August 31, 2011. REUTERS/

Tehran could ‘precipitate a crisis that would corner the White House’

The US began training a small group of Syrian rebels in early May on the condition that they focus solely on defeating the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or Daesh), the Wall Street Journal reported.

And 1,000 fighters are already threatening to quit the training program, frustrated with Washington’s insistence that they leave Assad alone.

“We got this request to promise not to use any of our training against Assad,” Syrian rebel Mustapha Sejari told Michael Weiss of The Daily Beast. “A Department of Defence liaison officer … told us, ‘We got this money from Congress for a program to fight ISIS only.’ This reason was not convincing for me. So we said no.”

And US reluctance isn’t a matter of lacking intelligence, according to rebels who have worked with the CIA in Turkey.

“The American intelligence services have a fair idea who the good guys and bad guys are in Syria and they know which groups are fighting both extremism and dictatorship,” Sejari said. “If the Obama administration were sincere in putting an end to the suffering of the Syrian people, they could do that in three months.”

As Badran sees it, the President — knowing full well that Tehran could “precipitate a crisis that would corner the White House,” derail negotiations, and sabotage any hope for an opening with Rouhani — never had any intention of intervening against Assad, which may be why he capitulated so quickly when Russia offered to oversee the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons in September 2013.

Iran kerry Zarif
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif before a meeting in Geneva January 14, 2015. Rick Wilking/Reuters

‘We knew of sites that Assad didn’t declare’

On June 23, 2014, the last of Assad’s declared chemical weapons were supposedly shipped out of Syria for destruction. Earlier this month, however, traces of sarin-type chemical weapons and ricin-type biological weapons were found by inspectors at sites that the Assad regime had failed to report to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

Even worse, the Obama administration knew about the undeclared sites.

“We knew of sites that Assad didn’t declare,” a senior intelligence official told Bloomberg. “It’s a balancing act. You want to do something to get rid of it, but you also don’t want to show them all your cards.”

Assad flouting the spirit of the agreement in other ways as well. Syrian civil defence workers and doctors “have documented 35 barrel bomb attacks where chlorine was allegedly used since 16 March … with more than 1,000 injuries and nine deaths,” The Guardian reported recently.

Syria chlorine
A Civil Defence member carries a damaged canister in Ibleen village from what activists said was a chlorine gas attack, on Kansafra, Ibleen and Josef villages, Idlib countryside May 3, 2015. REUTERS/Abed Kontar

It remains unlikely that the White House will hold Assad accountable for the chlorine bombs, either.

“It is true that we’ve seen reports about the use of chlorine in bombs that had the effect of chemical weapons,” Obama said at Camp David earlier this month. “Chlorine itself historically has not been listed as a chemical weapon.”

‘Making this Daesh come out’

Even airstrikes for Syrian rebels fighting ISIS are not currently on the table.

“The Syrian-American community asked the Obama Administration for airstrikes on ISIS near Marea many months ago,” Mohammed al-Ghanem, the senior political advisor for the Syrian American Council, told the Beast. “We were rebuffed for the astounding reason that aiding the rebels in Aleppo would hurt Assad, which would anger the Iranians, who might then turn up the heat on U.S. troops in Iraq.”

In the end, leaving Assad alone is actually hurting Obama’s primary goal of “degrading and ultimately defeating” ISIS.

Ibrahim Hamidi, a journalist and political analyst from the restive Syrian province of Idlib, told The New York Times that the US-led campaign is actually driving Syrians into the arms of ISIS by attacking the Sunni terror group while ignoring Assad’s bombing of Sunnis.

“The coalition is scratching the skin and making this Daesh come out,” Hamidi said.

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