Defense and State In a Tug of War Over Obama’s Syria Policy

Defense and State In a Tug of War Over Obama’s Syria Policy

For many of us, the news last week that President Obama is sending U.S. Special Forces to Syria to oversee the training of Syrian rebels fighting ISIS is confusing. It begs the question—what exactly is the Obama administration’s policy, strategy, and tactics, and why are we putting boots on the ground in what is now a third theater of war.

At this point, it’s hard to tell who’s an ally, who’s an enemy, and who’s fighting whom. What Washington’s trying to accomplish and in what order is a blur at this point.

Related: Obama’s Syria Strategy: ‘Scrambling’ and ‘Desperate’ as Putin Takes Charge

Secretary of State Kerry concluded two days of talk in Vienna on Friday with a pencil sketch of the most promising path to a settlement in Syria since it erupted in war and crisis four years ago. There’s no certain outcome, but I see more room for optimism than Kerry and the White House profess.

Was Kerry blindsided by the news that American soldiers will now deploy in Syria–just as he sat down with his counterparts from Russia and Iran?

It’s hard to say whether Kerry was blindsided by the news that American soldiers will now deploy in Syria, as he seemed to suggest—just as he sat down with his counterparts from Russia, Iran, nine other nations, and the European Union. But the weird timing of this momentous move is the least of its faults.

If little else is clear, there’s no mistaking that the Obama administration has at last settled on a resolute strategy in Syria. Yet, just the opposite’s the case. We’re watching more bumbling improvisation, in the course of which the miscalculations might well undermine efforts to find a way forward.

Even the administration has stopped pretending it’s doing anything other than flailing. A top administration official said as much to Greg Jaffe at The Washington Post after the troop deployment was announced Friday when he said, “We’re looking at things in a granular way.”  A granular way? I’ve heard weak fallbacks in my years as a journalist, but that’s up there with the weakest.

Related: How Putin Put Obama in a Bind on Syria

It’s a stretch to dress up the administration’s policy in diplomacy-speak as “a two-track strategy,” but let’s call it one for the sake of argument.

With Zarif, Lavrov, and a roomful of other foreign ministers, Kerry hammered out proposals for a nationwide ceasefire.

Kerry’s talks in Vienna were big stuff by any measure. He negotiated with Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, for the first time on a question other than the nuclear agreement struck in July. He had extensive talks with Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, for the first time since Moscow launched its new a military campaign against Islamic militias a few weeks ago.

With Zarif, Lavrov, and a roomful of other foreign ministers, Kerry hammered out proposals for a nationwide ceasefire to be followed by a U.N.-supervised constitutional revision and national elections. It’s a blueprint drawn freehand, nothing more. But it’s the first time all involved outside powers have agreed on a political solution.

But there are two core contradictions in Washington’s diplomatic stance that Kerry will have to resolve if a deal on a post-crisis national government in Damascus is to be struck and holds. Eventually, the conceptual blur will have to give way to clarity.

The problems are these:

• On one hand, the administration continues to insist that President Bashar al-Assad’s removal must be a precondition to any settlement. On the other, it finally acknowledges what Russia, Iran and others have long argued: It’s in everyone’s interest to keep Syria’s national government intact to avoid turning it into another Libya.

Related: Why Obama Should Let Putin Misfire in Syria

Ousting Assad prior to a political settlement is the last thing anyone favoring an orderly transition should want. Kerry now seems to stand at the edge of this logic without buying into it. He said in Vienna he would bring home a dossier of things to discuss with his boss, and it’ll be interesting to learn what’s in it.

• Russia’s longstanding position is that it’s for Syrians, no outside power, to determine their future and their leaders. You may protest until the cows come home that this is nothing more than a cynical ruse on Moscow’s part, but that doesn’t matter. Kerry will either have to stand for this simple principle or explain why he doesn’t.

If the diplomacy is intellectually flawed, the military campaign is worse. I stand with those many who say deploying a few dozen troops as advisers will prove completely inconsequential. Given the risks involved—and there are several—this is actually the best one can hope for.

I don’t see even one redeeming positive in this move. No one talking in Vienna and no leadership in Moscow, Tehran, or even Damascus will be impressed, since it conveys what it’s meant to refute–an indecisive leader whose top diplomat is working against his generals.

It’s nearly haywire on the ground at this point. The Pentagon declines to advise Russia as to where in northern Syria its troops will operate. So someone has to explain why Kerry can confer regularly with Lavrov while the American military folds its arms and risks an obviously fateful mistake.

Related: Obama Rewrites His Syria Plan, but Is It a Strategy?

The Syrian Arab Coalition, which the Pentagon backs, consists of a rainbow of militias with varying agendas. The Raqqa Revolutionary Brigade, a member of the new coalition, announced last Thursday that an offensive against Raqqa, the Islamic State’s seat and the Pentagon’s announced objective, is imminent.

If the Pentagon is now desperate to match the Russians on the battlefield, that’s not a good reason to send ground troops into a war zone.

Fine. But anyone claiming this is a united front with an agreed objective is either dreaming or making it up. It includes a goodly measure of tribal fighters; the Raqqa Revolutionaries were once allied with al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria.

For good measure, the Kurdish units that U.S. troops are to advise are under attack from Turkey—Washington’s very odd ally in this fight.

It starts to look as if the Pentagon is now desperate to match the Russians on the battlefield. And that’s not a good reason to send ground troops into a war zone.

The take-homes here are two.

One, we now have a clearer view than ever of a policy split in the Obama administration between the diplomats and the militarists. No coherent strategy in Syria—or anywhere else—can emerge until this is resolved. In all likelihood, a bi-policy disorder on foreign affairs will be a prominent feature of Obama’s legacy.

Two, Obama has just painted himself further into an already narrow corner given the risks attaching to the troop deployments—not least among them complete failure on the ground. His best bet now is to reverse course yet again and let Kerry stay at the mahogany table for as long as it takes.

This means dropping the demand that Assad must go first and reaching a settlement on the terms Kerry just brought back from Vienna. It may be bitter, but there’s far more promise in this course than in any other now open to the U.S. Kerry is due to reconvene with his counterparts in two weeks.

We’ll all need two television screens from here on out: one to watch the diplomats, the other the Special Forces troops running a military campaign in the Syrian countryside.