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WASHINGTON — By the summer of 2011, the Syrian uprising was spiraling into a full-fledged insurgency, with ragtag militias eclipsing the nonviolent opposition and dealing serious blows to the once-untouchable regime of Bashar Assad.
Inside the Obama administration, a debate was heating up between senior officials who opposed U.S. involvement and others who urged the White House to do something, anything, to boost a then-nascent rebel movement. European allies and Arab partners added to the pressure by calling nonstop, leaning on the United States to denounce Assad in a symbolic move that they hoped would catalyze regime change in Damascus.
After a month of interagency emails, intelligence assessments and legal reviews, the White House settled on a written statement that President Barack Obama would issue on Aug. 18, 2011. There was a preamble hailing the peaceful demonstrators who stood up to the regime’s “ferocious brutality,” and then the money line:
“For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”
Senior aides referred to them as the “magic words.” But rather than nudge Syria closer to what the administration’s Middle East specialists assured was a fait accompli — Assad’s quick exit from power — the statement tethered the United States to one side of what’s become a merciless civil war.
As of this month, the fourth anniversary of Obama’s call for Assad to step down, the Syrian leader remains in charge of a fragmented country, the death toll has climbed beyond 220,000, and the number of refugees just passed the 4 million mark — half of them children, according to the United Nations. U.S. assistance for the humanitarian crisis now tops $4 billion, a small fraction of what it would take to ease the human suffering that’s seeping across borders as the conflict rages on with no political or military solution in sight.
The unchecked violence in Syria also opened space for Islamist extremists, who came to dominate the anti-Assad movement. The Islamic State now controls a third of Syria; al-Qaida’s Nusra Front is a key military driver in roughly another third. Other Islamist factions, from relative moderates to militant jihadists, make up much of the remainder of the anti-Assad movement, while rebel groups espousing democratic ideals have been reduced to bit players.
And the U.S. military, which thought its wars in the Middle East had ended after eight dismal years in Iraq, once again is bombing targets in Iraq and Syria, and debating whether American forces should return to fight more virulent strands of the same jihadist movements that commanders once considered vanquished. Efforts to build trusted proxy forces have collapsed — a $500 million program to train and equip vetted rebels has graduated just 60 fighters, many of them seized by Islamists within weeks of hitting the battlefield.
Privately, American diplomats say they don’t really want Assad to fall, at least not overnight, not when they know that abrupt regime change almost certainly would result in a free-for-all among militants for control of Damascus. But they can’t say that publicly because they’re stuck with a policy that might as well have been cast in concrete the moment Obama called for Assad to go.
In multiple interviews over the past year, nine of the most senior Syria policymakers from across the government, some of whom spoke on the record and others on condition of anonymity so as to freely describe sensitive internal debates, recounted how a seemingly risk-free gesture of solidarity with dissidents yoked the United States to the anti-Assad cause even though he’s no longer the primary target as the policy evolves into what Secretary of State John Kerry called an “ISIL-first” strategy.
“It’s an ISIS-first war,” agreed one former senior U.S. official who was closely involved in Syria planning for the first two years of the conflict. “Of course, there’s nothing second, but they just don’t say that.”
Obama had made clear to his Middle East hands that he wanted to avoid U.S. entanglement in Syria. But he also wanted to avoid the vilification that came when the United States was perceived to have been moving too slowly to support the Egyptian uprising in early 2011.
To bridge these two objectives, policymakers said, they settled on a gamble. They bet that calling for Assad to step aside would be painless for the United States because he was on his way out anyway, facing the same reversal of fortune as the autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya during that era of popular uprisings.
Based on what would turn out to be flawed and incorrect assessments that Assad’s fall was imminent, the planners said, they dismissed naysayers among them who pointed out that the words could be construed as an implicit pledge of U.S. help and, worse, that there was no backup strategy should Assad remain.
Frederic Hof, who led the State Department’s response to the Syrian uprising and is now with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, said that Obama’s statement should’ve come only after “a very careful and very comprehensive interagency planning process” that identified U.S. objectives in Syria and offered the president policy options as part of a broader, agreed-upon strategy.
“At that point, a presidential statement saying Assad must step side would reflect an approved national security strategy for Syria. It would reflect something of substance, it would reflect the manner in which the United States intends to proceed,” Hof said. “This was done entirely backwards, in this rush to get the president on ‘the right side of history’ based on a faulty and thoroughly unsupported, unsubstantiated assumption that this guy was going to be gone in 20 minutes.”
Ryan Crocker, a former career diplomat and noted Arabist who’s served as ambassador to Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, called the president’s statement “an uh-oh moment, based, I think, on a fundamental misunderstanding of the basic history and dynamics inside Syria.”
Current and former officials who worked on the conflict in its infancy, as well as outside experts who advised the policymakers, now speak of the debate over the so-called magic words as an early lesson in the divisions within the administration that persist today as hindrances to a coherent U.S. response to the Syrian conflict.
Unlike in discussions over how to handle Libya, for example, senior U.S. officials never agreed on Syria’s strategic value, the potential of the political opposition, the trustworthiness of the rebels and to what degree the United States could — or should — help to bring about regime change.
“The White House and the State Department both — and I include myself in this — were guilty of highfalutin rhetoric without any kind of hard policy tools to make the rhetoric stick,” said Robert Ford, who as the U.S. ambassador to Syria would become the American face of the conflict.
However, he said, even if the White House had resisted the intense lobbying of that summer, the public campaign and private diplomacy to draw in the United States would’ve continued. After all, the pressures had gotten to him all the way in Damascus.
“To be fair to the White House, they did ask me shortly before the president made the announcement whether it was a good idea. And I said, ‘Well, you might as well go ahead at this point,'” Ford recalled. “That was a mistake.”
What the Oval Office intended as a cost-free gesture to support the seemingly imminent overthrow of Assad was received on the battlefield — and to rebel supporters within the administration — as a tacit pledge of U.S. help to get the job done. But Assad hung on and the help didn’t arrive, leaving the insurgents bitter and disillusioned over what they now consider the first of many broken promises of Western assistance.
“It began a pattern of rhetoric getting out in front of action,” Hof said. “There’s been a lot of verbiage unaccompanied by real determination to make it happen.”
Such a call from Obama, Hof argued, was “not idle chitchat, it’s not an advisory opinion, and it’s not Dutch-uncle advice to the president of Syria. It’s directive in nature, and, therefore, we damn well better make it happen.”
Obama’s call for Assad to go was no spontaneous cri de coeur from a world leader who’d had enough of the blood-soaked images coming from Syria.
Instead, it was a carefully orchestrated moment that capped weeks of debate over what Obama should say, according to officials whose accounts converge in showing an administration that was caught off guard by the Arab Spring protests, ill-informed about Assad’s staying power and under pressure at home and abroad from those who saw an opportunity to hit Iran via its ally in Damascus.
Even critics of Obama’s handling of the conflict say that any examination of the decision-making should take into account the pressures and frenzy of that moment in the Middle East.
An unprecedented wave of uprisings against Arab autocrats already had toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt by the summer of 2011. Yemen’s president was on his way out and Moammar Gadhafi was on the run in Libya. Demonstrations in Bahrain had just forced the cancellation of that country’s Grand Prix, a major Formula One racing event.
“You were constantly pivoting from portfolio to portfolio, knowing there were linkages between them all,” recalled Jeffrey Feltman, who then oversaw the State Department’s Middle East policy as assistant secretary of Near Eastern Affairs. “It was really hectic a lot of the time.”
The protests shattered the status quo of the Middle East, ushering in a dangerous era of untested political actors and trigger-happy militiamen of all loyalties. The U.S. foreign policy machine, not known for being nimble in the smoothest of times, was struggling to find ways to protect American interests and evaluate the new forces that were seizing power across the region.
The goal had been to “ratchet up” the Syria response incrementally, starting with U.S. condemnation of the violence and eventually suggesting that Assad had lost legitimacy, two former policymakers said. But the conflict was moving too quickly and the United States’ allies in Europe, especially the French, were relentless in their lobbying for a denunciation of Assad, they said. The United States already had imposed sanctions against Assad and his cronies for human rights abuses that May.
Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria at the time, said he initially opposed calling for Assad’s ouster for two reasons: It was clear to him that sanctions were the only punishment the White House was willing to use, and that such a call would kill his efforts to start a dialogue with the regime.
Ford said he was up against the same outside pressures other officials listed — influential Republicans, a few senior Democrats, the “very loud” Syrian-American community and foreign governments — but he added one force that’s often overlooked.
“To be very frank, the press, the media, was baiting us. It’s not like the media was impartial in this,” Ford said. “Because once the Republicans started saying he has no legitimacy, the question then became at press conferences every day: Do you think he has legitimacy? What are we supposed to say? Yes, he does?”
Ford said American diplomats wanted to buy a little time and were “trying to get the French to hold still,” but the pressure only increased. When the French government announced that then-Foreign Minister Alain Juppe would be visiting Washington that June to meet with his counterpart, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Ford worried that the occasion would be used to call for Assad’s ouster. He said he pressed upon his boss, Feltman, “to make sure she didn’t say that.”
She didn’t. It was clear the White House felt the need to speak up about the rising death toll, officials explained, but there still seemed to be little appetite among Obama and his closest advisers to rush into an escalation.
“The only policy tool we were willing to engage was more sanctions. And everybody knew that Assad wasn’t going to step down because we upped the sanctions,” Ford said. “That was understood.”
The president and his inner circle were convinced from early in the conflict that Syria had little strategic value for the United States, wasn’t likely to be U.S.-friendly no matter who took over, and that the Syrian opposition was hopelessly unprepared to assume leadership, said policymakers from the White House and State Department.
The White House’s chief priority in Syria, they said, was the potential for chemical weapons to slip from the regime’s tight control to the jihadists, who were already showing themselves among rebel ranks. The bloodshed in Syria was tragic and warranted a strong response, the officials agreed, but there was little desire to go “all-in” on the conflict, especially from the Oval Office.
“There was never a view, from the highest levels, that the U.S. had a big, important role — or should have a big, important role — in the Syrian civil war,” another former senior policymaker said. “It was always, ‘Let’s look like we’re on top of this problem, let’s look like we’re doing something, but let’s not own it.'”
He and other officials said that confusion — both inside and outside the administration — arose in large part because the administration could never bring itself to bluntly communicate that view, especially after having joined the NATO-led intervention that helped to overthrow Libya’s Gadhafi, whose atrocities paled in comparison to the Assad regime’s tactics.
Plus, senior Middle East policymakers were still stinging from criticism of their response to the popular uprising against Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and were determined to change the U.S. image by responding more swiftly on Syria.
“People around the president were very chastened by their slow, excessively prudent reaction to the Egyptian revolution. That was the view at the time,” the same Syria policymaker said. “They weren’t going to be caught flat-footed in that way. And, to be fair, they weren’t.
“They made a totally different mistake.”
The Syrian regime picked August, which coincided with the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, to launch an operation that left hundreds dead in the anti-Assad stronghold of Hama. Amateur footage uploaded to the Internet showed lifeless civilians amid thick black smoke.
And there was another urgent development: Reports were emerging of heavy regime losses, inspiring greater confidence in the rebels and giving credence to internal assessments that Assad would fall by Christmas, perhaps even by Thanksgiving.
European campaigning kicked into overdrive. The allies had successfully talked the United States into an active role against Gadhafi and now wanted the same support to take down Assad. They reiterated calls for a coordinated, simultaneous demand for Assad’s departure.
While the Americans agreed in principle, several of those involved recalled, there was debate around what message the move would send to Syrian rebels as well as serious concern about the lack of an opposition body that could move swiftly into place as an interim government. They’d been going back and forth on the matter for all of July, in emails and at interagency meetings, half a dozen current and former officials said.
Those who urged caution in calling for Assad’s ouster pointed out the singular sectarian dynamics within Syria and said they were alarmed by the lack of a day-after plan should the U.S. support actually fuel the revolt and leave Damascus with a power vacuum overnight. This was not homogenous Egypt or Libya, they warned the White House.
Senior officials also debated the legalities and ethics of such a move, arguing over whether saying Assad must go was tantamount to pledging U.S. military might to his removal, especially on the heels of the Libya intervention. There was concern about making such a bold statement when sanctions were still the only policy option on the table.
“The prevailing view in the White House, in the National Security staff, and among the president’s immediate circle of advisers, was that the president should really say something, that he should be on the right side of history,” Hof recalled. “The prevailing view in the Department of State was, ‘Nothing wrong with being on the right side of history, as long as you have a plan in place to implement the desires of the commander in chief.'”
“And the debate,” Hof continued, “was essentially swung by the strong debate from the White House that Assad was going anyway, and so this would be a good time for a presidential sendoff.”
Because Ford and other respected Syria watchers were predicting — “with great confidence,” as one White House insider remembered it — that Assad was a goner, only a handful of skeptics asked the unpopular question.
“It was said, ‘Well, what happens if he doesn’t go? You’re the president of the United States. People will look upon these words as a promise. And if it doesn’t happen automatically, you will be expected to make it happen,'” recalled one policy architect.
“I don’t think anybody was predicting that he would stay, precisely. The expert community was pretty united,” he continued. “But there were people who were saying, ‘Well, jeez, we might be wrong, and if we are wrong, this stuff is going to hurt us.'”
As the regime widened its attacks on opposition targets that month, Syrian activists and their supporters around the world lambasted the United States for failing to call for Assad’s ouster, forcing Clinton to go on the defensive at a public appearance on Aug. 16, 2011.
Clinton said that the United States lacked the leverage in Syria that it enjoyed in other countries with stronger economic and political ties. She also noted that Turkey and Saudi Arabia already had called for regime change in Damascus, so Assad surely had gotten the message.
“It’s not going to be any news if the United States says, ‘Assad needs to go,’ Clinton said at the time. “OK, fine, what’s next?”
The administration didn’t dwell on that question. Two days later, on Aug. 18, Obama called for Assad’s ouster in coordination with the leaders of the United Kingdom, France and Germany, who issued their own joint statement. The president also signed an executive order that immediately froze all assets of the Syrian government that fell under U.S. jurisdiction and banned Americans from doing business with the regime.
The “magic words” finally had been uttered, after five months of violence and a death toll of 1,800.
Syrian opposition factions cheered, with news reports from that day quoting jubilant activists. Razan Zaitouneh, a lawyer and vocal opposition activist, told Britain’s Guardian newspaper that she interpreted the statement as a sign that the international community was ready to get serious about addressing Assad’s atrocities.
“This statement is the right start,” she was quoted as saying.
Abu Salim, a prominent opposition activist from Homs who’s been in talks with U.S. officials for years, said he knew better than to interpret Obama’s statement as a veiled promise to help topple Assad. Just before the announcement, he said, he’d met secretly with officials from the U.S. embassy in Beirut and had gleaned “that there was nothing serious,” certainly no intervention in the cards.
“It was the nature of their questions. It was obvious for me that there was no decisive policy and they were just in the phase of exploring what’s happening, without any commitment,” Abu Salim, who uses a nom de guerre for security reasons, recalled in an interview during a recent visit to Washington, where he warned U.S. lawmakers about the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons.
Abu Salim said he’d tried his best to temper the excitement of his fellow activists in Homs once Obama finally called for Assad’s ouster. He said he implored them not to publicly seek a no-fly zone; he thought it would embarrass the opposition and disappoint ordinary Syrians to make a request he knew the United States wouldn’t even consider. But his comrades would have none of it.
“Nobody in the revolutionary coordination at that time thought the democratic world would fail us, or abandon us,” he recalled. “I told them at that time, ‘I hope I’m wrong and you’re right.'”
Today, the remnants of the opposition groups that rejoiced at Obama’s statement, thinking that they had a superpower in their corner, now understand the words as they were intended by the speechwriters in Washington — as only “a preference and a prediction,” as one former senior official explained it.
Zaitouneh, the once-hopeful activist who went on to win two State Department awards for her work, was seized along with her husband and two colleagues in December 2013 — not by the regime she risked her life to oppose but reportedly by one of the many jihadist groups that have proliferated over the years. The activists’ fates are unknown.
At the time of her abduction, U.S. officials who dealt with her confided, Zaitouneh was so let down by the response from Washington that she wasn’t even on speaking terms with her old American contacts. That sense of betrayal is pervasive among opposition activists and armed rebels who say they wasted months on halfhearted, abortive projects and forged bonds with U.S. officials who turned out to be powerless or unwilling to help them.
“I admit that the Syrian opposition made a mistake by relying more than was needed and more than was realistic on the United States,” Abu Salim said. “But at the same time, we do remember from meetings with the officials of the State Department, from the early days of the revolution, that they were not speaking to us in terms of preferences. They were speaking to us as if we were in an alliance.”