Tony Badran

Obama has had a strategy all along

Critics say Obama has no Syria policy, but they’re wrong

Obama addresses the US in a televised address earlier in September 2013. (AFP photo)

Last week, Frederic Hof, one of the Obama administration's former top Syria hands, asked whether the administration had a conscious strategy in Syria. Hof, who since leaving government has been a strong critic of the administration's Syria policy, was prompted to tackle the question after hearing a journalist at a conference in Lebanon posit that the US was pursuing a cold, deliberate strategy of sitting on the sidelines while Iran's assets and Sunni jihadists batter each other. Hof disagreed and instead offered that the administration's policy was "largely one of avoidance," driven by President Obama's resolve to not get involved in another civil war in the Middle East, especially when Syria was not something Obama considered a core US interest.


Hof is undoubtedly right to reject the conceit, attributed to White House chief of staff Denis McDonough in a long New York Times story last year, that the Obama strategy was to bleed Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda in Syria. The quote, much as the article itself, was another instance of managed White House messaging aimed at ascribing a hardnosed realist rationale to Obama's decision not to intervene in Syria following the chemical weapons fiasco. Nevertheless, this does not mean that Obama's policy hasn't been undergirded by a broader strategic vision for the region. In reality, what’s remarkable is not that the administration lacks a strategy; it doesn’t. Rather, it’s that it has been pursuing a consciously pro-Iranian strategy.


The White House’s strategic vision is centered on détente with Iran and on integrating Tehran into a new regional framework. This vision has consequently engendered strategic preferences and policy choices, which have been evident in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. In line with the broader vision, these choices have been advantageous to Iranian interests and fundamentally adverse to the Syrian rebels and to their regional Sunni backers.


To get a handle on the contours of how these strategic preferences played out in Syria, we must first identify the objective that the Obama administration has set out to achieve there. At a recent panel in Washington, the administration's former point-man on Syria, Ambassador Robert Ford, explained that, "from the beginning, we have seen the only way out of this conflict is that there would ultimately have to be a negotiation between the opposition and the regime." Indeed, Ford explained that this is what he had tried to do in Damascus in the summer of 2011, as I chronicled in this space at the time. The idea of a negotiated settlement with the regime remains the basis of Obama's policy to this day.


What's more, the administration has made plain that the endgame it wants is premised on continuity of the regime – what it has euphemistically referred to as "preserving state institutions." In line with this desired outcome, administration officials have also stated that they do not wish to see an outright rebel victory. Needless to say, these preferences are decidedly pro-regime. 


Over the past three years, the administration’s choices have been consistent with these desired goals – decisions that have handicapped the opposition’s backers, but not the regime’s. As such, the White House maneuvered to block political and military avenues that the rebels’ state backers like France, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia have sought. When these states attempted to bypass the Russian veto at the Security Council, the administration made Moscow its principal partner in Syria. The White House also vetoed supplying the rebels with arms that could tip the balance in their favor. Not only did Washington block any effort to militarily weaken Assad, but having rejected striking the regime following the chemical weapons attack last year, it also compelled the opposition to negotiate with Assad at a moment when he held the momentum.


In addition, although Obama has said that dismantling "terrorist networks that threaten our people” is a core US interest, in Syria this has applied only to Sunni terror groups. Far from pinning down Iranian assets in a war with Sunni jihadists, the US has sought to shut down the latter. As such, the White House has publicly pressured Sunni regional states to clamp down on all sources of aid that could end up in the hands of extremist groups. 


In contrast, it has not done the same with Tehran and its allies, like the Nouri Maliki government in Iraq, even as Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite groups – some of which have American blood on their hands – have been an essential factor in Assad’s survival. What’s more, in Lebanon, the US has effectively partnered with Hezbollah against Salafist factions that have targeted Shiite areas and Iranian interests in Beirut. The White House has thereby actively aided the party to not only contain the threat to its security, but also to control the border with the Assad enclave in western Syria. In so doing, the White House has helped Iran safeguard its strategic interests, maintaining territorial contiguity between its two satrapies on the Mediterranean.


Some will argue that President Obama’s mystifying policy decisions in Syria are more simply explained by his determination to keep the US out of the Middle East. But the president's resolve to disentangle the US from the region hardly conflicts with his accommodation of Iran. In fact, Obama’s commitment to diminish the US footprint is directly tied to his drive to radically restructure the existing order and alignments in the region. For Obama, establishing a new equilibrium with Iran is essential to reducing the US profile in the Middle East.


Hof’s Arab interlocutors may have got Obama’s strategy wrong, but they were not wrong to believe that he had one. What they, along with Washington’s traditional regional allies, seem unable to digest is that the White House has been pursuing a strategy favorable to Iranian interests and detrimental to America’s old partners.


Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.

He's got a plan. (AFP photo)

“For Obama, establishing a new equilibrium with Iran is essential to reducing the US profile in the Middle East.”

  • stephen.albert.353

    You are giving Obama much too much credit for a thought out foreign policy. He essentially want problems in the Middle East to go away. Just as he wishes Putin would not be so nasty in Ukraine so the diplomacy could get back to business as usual. These pesky foreign conflicts distract Obama from what really matters to him.His domestic priorities. Crisis in Ukraine.He,s off to Asia for a trip put off by government shutdown. As if wishing reality away would make it so.

    April 28, 2014

  • SpikerofGdansk

    This certainly fits the facts. For the US, having troops tied down in the Middle East makes it harder to compete with China in the Far East. Obama would have liked to consign Iran to a smaller role by wooing Assad, but it turned out that Iran's help was needed to preserve Assad's regime. In effect the US wages war by proxy in Syria and Iraq - in the form of supporting the Iraqi regime directly, and crippling the rebels in the face of the Iranian and Syrian government forces and ISIS. But let's not put any faith in the REAL intentions of France (a major supplier of chemical weapons components to Syria before the war broke out) and Turkey (which also blocks rocket launchers from reaching the rebels, yet threatens war on Syria itself - not to save the living, but to save a dead man's shrine). They want a piece of the cake, but they don't consider it worth defying the US to get it. Meanwhile, if hundreds of thousands are murdered, tortured, raped or made homeless, Obama considers this a price worth paying for his Riskopoly games.

    April 25, 2014

  • Beiruti

    Not to decide is a decision in and of itself. Obama has decided not to intervene in the war. The assumption is that if the US did intervene it would intervene on behalf of the Syrian Opposition and so the passive US response, by default and in a de facto way is a positive for the Regime camp which has been spared the wrath of the US military. Obama has no Syrian strategy, so don't fool yourself. Syria is not on his radar screen. The fact that one side or the other benefits from Obama's benign neglect is not a sign that Obama supports the side so benefitted. It is just the natural result of his neglect.

    April 24, 2014

  • jrocks

    but why would obama mention the chemical weapons line that shouldn't be crossed in the first place? he should have shut his mouth from the start

    April 24, 2014

  • SpikerofGdansk

    To make himself look like a big man. Maybe he thought Assad would obey. I don't know why Assad took the risk, though. Maybe to be a big man, too. Maybe he correctly though Obama would be desperate to wriggle out of it.

    April 25, 2014

  • jrocks

    yep. i agree with tony's analysis about obama's plan and assad must have seen that early on. assad did what he did because he knew obama was all talk.

    April 25, 2014