Sunday, September 07, 2014

Question for Obama: Why is arming a "moderate" Syrian opposition no longer a "fantasy"?

Back in January Obama suggested to David Remnick that trying to arm and shape a "moderate" opposition to Assad was futile:
... I asked Obama if he was haunted by Syria, and, though the mask of his equipoise rarely slips, an indignant expression crossed his face. “I am haunted by what’s happened,” he said. “I am not haunted by my decision not to engage in another Middle Eastern war. It is very difficult to imagine a scenario in which our involvement in Syria would have led to a better outcome, short of us being willing to undertake an effort in size and scope similar to what we did in Iraq. And when I hear people suggesting that somehow if we had just financed and armed the opposition earlier, that somehow Assad would be gone by now and we’d have a peaceful transition, it’s magical thinking.

“It’s not as if we didn’t discuss this extensively down in the Situation Room. It’s not as if we did not solicit—and continue to solicit—opinions from a wide range of folks. Very early in this process, I actually asked the C.I.A. to analyze examples of America financing and supplying arms to an insurgency in a country that actually worked out well. And they couldn’t come up with much. We have looked at this from every angle. 
More recently, he told members of Congress that the notion that the U.S. could have conjured an effective moderate opposition was "a fantasy."  Now, though, as he told Chuck Todd in an interview airing today, his nascent strategy in Syria depends on building such an opposition. When Todd challenged him as to how ISIS could be defeated in Syria without U.S. troops, here was his response:

PRESIDENT OBAMA:
And-- and in Syria, the boots on the ground have to be Syrian. And that's why-- 

CHUCK TODD:
Who? 

PRESIDENT OBAMA:
Well we have a Free Syrian Army and a moderate opposition that we have steadily been working with but we have vetted. They have been on the defensive, not just from ISIL, but also from the Assad regime. And what-- you know, if you recall, at the West Point speech that I gave, I said, we need to put more resources into the moderate opposition in part because, unless we have people we can work with who are Sunni in these Sunni regions, then we're going to continue to have these problems. 

And so the-- the strategy both for Iraq and for Syria is that we will hunt down ISIL members and assets wherever they are. I will reserve the right to always protect the American people and go after folks who are trying to hurt us wherever they are. 

But in terms of controlling territory, we're going to have to develop a moderate Sunni opposition that can control territory and that we can work with. The notion that the United States should be putting boots on the ground, I think would be a profound mistake. And I want to be very clear and very explicit about that.
The question of whether the U.S. should put ground troops in Syria is a straw man. The real question is why Obama now thinks that backing and building a "moderate" opposition in Syria is viable.

The answer is plainly in part that events have forced his hand. To the extent that Obama himself as a nascent answer, however, I believe it would be that events have also forced the local Sunni powers' hand. In 2012 and 2013, rival Gulf powers were working at cross-purposes, competing in their backing of rival groups, sometimes including ISIS and Jubhat al-Nusra. In the Remnick interview in January, Obama identified "working" the outside powers -- Iran as well as the Gulf states -- as a key to moving toward "a decent outcome":
And the truth is that the challenge there has been, and continues to be, that you have an authoritarian, brutal government who is willing to do anything to hang on to power, and you have an opposition that is disorganized, ill-equipped, ill-trained, and is self-divided. All of that is on top of some of the sectarian divisions. . . . And, in that environment, our best chance of seeing a decent outcome at this point is to work the state actors who have invested so much in keeping Assad in power—mainly the Iranians and the Russians—as well as working with those who have been financing the opposition to make sure that they’re not creating the kind of extremist force that we saw emerge out of Afghanistan when we were financing the mujahideen.”
In the Todd interview, Obama suggested a more sweeping agenda with respect to marshaling Sunni Islam against a metastsized  ISIS:
Well, I think that it is absolutely true that we're going to need Sunni states to step up, not just Saudi Arabia, our partners like Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey. They need to be involved. This is their neighborhood. The dangers that are posed are-- are more directed at them right now than they are us. 

And that's part of the conversation that John Kerry's going to be having this week. I sent him there after we left-- the NATO meeting in Wales. And the good news is, I think, for the, perhaps the first time, you have absolute clarity that the problem for Sunni states in the region, many of whom are our allies, is not simply Iran. It's not simply a Sunni-Shia issue. 

Sunni extremism, as represented by ISIL, is the biggest danger that they face right now. And with that understanding, it gives us the capacity for them to start getting more active and more involved. And by the way, some of that's military. But some of it is giving political support to Baghdad and strengthening relations with Shia leaders in Baghdad. Some of it is reaching out to the Sunni tribes in Iraq and identifying who we can work with, so that they can fight their own battles to free villages and regions that, you know, where they live. So they’ve got a big role to play. And, finally, a strategic messaging. One of the things we’ve seen about ISIL is they’re really good on social media. 

They--they understand how to -- message to disaffected youth throughout the Arab world and throughout the Sunni world what they’re doing. And the question is, when are the moderate Sunni states and leadership going to work systematically to say, “what ISIL represents isn’t Islam.”It is an abortion-- a distortion-- an abomination of that-- that has, you know, somehow tied Islam to the kind of nihilistic thinking that any civilized nation should-- should eliminate.
As I suggested last week, Obama's apparently maladroit, but repeated and elaborated insistence that "we don't have a strategy yet" in Iraq was very likely part of his effort to pressure "the moderate Sunni states" to recognize ISIS as their main enemy. It remains for him to explain how marshaling an effective regional coalition will help produce a rare or unique case  "of America financing and supplying arms to an insurgency in a country that actually worked out well." Perhaps it's an unprecedented challenge.

Update, 9/8: I wonder if complaints that Obama has been inconsistent in communicating his strategy since 8/31 -- which I think are off-base -- may be a sort of proxy for the perception that he has changed course with respect to the "moderate" Syrian opposition, without fully accounting for the shift.

Related: Contain, degrade, destroy ISIS? It's a timeline
              "We don't have a strategy yet" is a strategy

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