This essay is the second in a series of articles that dissects American foreign policy towards Syria under previous administrations and what actions the next White House can take to remedy the relationship. Here we examine President Obama’s decision not to launch airstrikes against the Syrian government in 2013 and what the next President can learn from that decision. You can read the first article in the series here.
On August 21, 2013, a sarin gas, chemical weapons attack was reported in Eastern Ghouta, a suburb outside Damascus used by rebels to lob artillery and mortar attacks into the capital. Video footage of the outbreak surfaced online, revealing women and children poisoned by the toxic nerve agent that led to convulsions and death.The attack was a tragic reminder of the lengths men will go to spread fear, terror, misdirection, and misery among civilian populations living in a war zone.
It was also the moment America’s White House and foreign policy elites were most ready to advocate for and initiate airstrikes on the military infrastructure of the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, effectively declaring war on Syria. The American and international press backed leading figures in the White House and State Department, pressing their case that the Assad government was responsible for the chemical attack. The advocates for war had no evidentiary support that backed their claims. It was the noble lie. an assertion made to justify war against a government they strongly disapprove of because the ends justify it. The accusation that Syrian military units carried out the chemical weapons attack in Eastern Ghouta with the approval of the government and expressed knowledge of President Assad later proved baseless.
Richard Lloyd, a former UN Weapons Inspector, and Theodore A. Postol, professor of Science, Technology, and National Security Policy at MIT, published findings in a study, Possible Implications of Faulty US Technical Intelligence in the Damascus Nerve Agent Attack of August 21, 2013, that concluded in agreement with the UN independent assessment. They argued in their report that the munitions “could not possibly have been fired” from government-controlled areas and that this “mistaken intelligence could have led to an unjustified US military action based on false evidence.”Indeed, what has been documented is how freely this White House manipulates raw intelligence data and analysis to create a narrative or bolster an agenda.
Since 2013, ISIS, al Qaeda, and our “moderate” allies have on numerous occasions been documented using and even admitted to using chemical weapons against civilians, including recently in Aleppo. The Obama administration has been compelled on multiple occasions since 2013 to disclose that U.S. aircraft have bombed chemical weapons factories owned by ISIS. We rushed to judgment. On faulty intelligence, with little public support, a Congress unsure if it could pass a resolution supporting the war, and uncertain of the consequences the military action would produce.
Those demanding war in 2013, hawkish democrats like Hillary Clinton and neoconservative Republicans alike, made the rush to judgment. The Western media was their 24/7 blaring accomplice, having already gone to war with Syria on the airwaves long before the August crisis. Before a team of United Nations inspectors could even consider surveying the ground to find evidence and causes of the chemical weapons attack, an army of lobbyists and media personalities had already pushed the case to the Presidents desk, arguing that Assad crossed the red line Obama drew when he said in the early months of civil unrest that “Assad must go.”
President Obama was ready to launch the airstrikes, having been hemmed in by a media swamp masquerading as humanitarians and hardliners both in and outside his government declaring he must launch the strikes. In the end, the President chose not to take America directly into war against another Middle East government. Much like John F. Keddy, who refused the advice of his hardline generals during the Cuban Missile Crisis and instead struck a deal with Russia, Obama refused to take direct military action and instead struck a chemical weapons deal with Russia and Syria.
Maybe it was the stroll around the South lawn of the White House with Chief of Staff Dennis Mcdonough that changed his mind. That was only hours after Secretary of State John Kerry called Assad a “murderous thug”, the administration’s strongest rhetoric yet in advance of the impending strike. A military campaign against Syria without America’s public approval or congressional authorization would have left the executive branch solely responsible for any unintended consequences military strikes would create. That was cause enough for the President, who prefers leading from behind, to reassess the decision.
President Obama managed to abort a risky mission that would have driven America deeper into the Syrian quagmire on the side of a terrorist alliance wreaking havoc on one of the few remaining secular and pluralist Republics in the Middle East. That does not excuse the covert war his administration has waged on Syria. Funding terrorists, sending illicit weapons from Libya to Syria that fell into the hands of al Qaeda and ISIS, illegally training a rebel force in Jordan and Turkey that always seems to end up joining our worse enemies once they cross the border into Syria, and essentially militarizing an entire country and turning it into a proxy war at the request of Islamists and Gulf monarchs. Make no mistake, America is at war with Syria. That we resisted the temptation to directly engage through airstrikes does not change what destruction we have helped create.
One of the loudest critics of the Obama administration’s rhetoric and prospective military action in Syria was none other than the next President, Donald Trump. He tweeted September 5, 2013, about the impending strikes, imploring the President not to take a foolish action that the U.S. would gain nothing for in return. Did Obama read Trump’s tweet, and that led him to call it off? Ok, probably not.
President Trump will find himself in very much the same situation as his predecessor. He will find that there are people around him, both from the military and his government, that want to pressure him to take counterproductive military actions that his instincts will tell him, as they did in September 2013, not to sign his name onto. They will call him weak and feckless if he doesn’t, and a parade of media spectators will agree with the hawks. Their natural disposition is war and they want to see Donald Trump make a catastrophic mistake that they can then blame him for.
President-elect Trump had spoken in front of the White House press corp after a 90-minute meeting with President Obama. In their public remarks, Trump said he would seek the last president’s counsel. Donald Trump has a very different view on Syria, Russia, and America’s foreign policy in the Middle East than Obama does. There is much the President has done that the next President should cancel, audit, or disregard, as expressed in 6 actions that will improve U.S. foreign policy in Syria. The decision not to launch American airstrikes into Syria against President Assad’s government? That’s one decision Donald Trump can and should seek counsel from President Obama on.
We can continue to resist the voices of regime change. Stay engaged with The International Scope as we explore the challenges and opportunities facing the United States in Syria under a new foreign policy doctrine. The next article will be a review of prominent Syrian-American organizations based in the U.S. and advocating improved relationships between the United States and a secular Syria.