For over two years, US President Barack Obama has resisted domestic and international pressure to play a more active role in the Syrian crisis. Last month, he decided to change his position, however, and arm elements of the Syrian opposition that his administration considers as “moderate”. Following a series of meetings with the US National Security Council, the Obama administration confirmed that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons against its opponents, causing the death of at least a 100 people. This was viewed as having crossed the “red line” that Washington had laid down for the Syrian regime in July 2012, warning that such use would be a game changer in the way it dealt with the Syrian crisis.
Obama’s new position has raised questions over the real reasons behind this change and, in particular, its timing. For months, the US administration has known that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons against its opponents at more than one location. Yet, it attempted to evade these reports, which required a firmer response. Although Obama and the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, have eventually admitted that there was strong evidence of the use of chemical weapons, the response did not go beyond verbal condemnation. The US statement on the number of victims of chemical attacks was also inconsistent, i.e. how did this relatively small number of casualties lead to a change in the US position towards a regime that, according to the United Nations, has killed more than 100,000 Syrians to date? It therefore seems clear that the change in the US position comes against a backdrop of other factors, of which the use of chemical weapons may be the least important.
Last summer, following the first reports on the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime, Obama rejected the advice of his senior advisers to arm the Syrian opposition, so as to create a balance of power on the ground, which would force the regime into accepting the idea of a negotiated settlement to the crisis. At the time, the US administration was divided into two camps. The first camp included the then secretary of state, Hilary Clinton, former CIA director, General David Petraeus, and chairman of the Joint-Chiefs-of-Staff, General Martin Dempsey. This camp called for arming the Syrian opposition. The second camp included Vice-President Joe Biden, former national security adviser, Thomas Donilon — one of the advocates of what has become known as the “Russian track” — and to a certain extent former secretary of defence, Leon Panetta.
After his re-election as president, Obama replaced most of his foreign and security policy team. His choices for the new team were in large part consistent with his own positions and views. The new Secretary of Defence, Chuck Hagel, and Secretary of State, John Kerry, are considered to be among the staunchest opponents of foreign military intervention. The new CIA Director, John Brennan, who replaced General Petraeus — who quit the post last summer, following a personal scandal — thinks that the US should remain focused on fighting terrorism. In addition, Brennan was known to be a proponent of security coordination with the Syrian regime during his work at the CIA under both Panetta and General Petraeus.
Clearly, the new team is coloured by a pragmatic tendency largely in accord with the president’s view, which favours staying out of Middle Eastern problems. It also indicates that the second Obama administration is more conservative than the first one concerning intervention in Syria. Indeed, Kerry has repeatedly stated that he will be working towards changing the calculations of the Syrian regime so that it agrees to a political settlement to the crisis. Yet, this has not been translated in the way expected by many observers.
Once Hillary left the administration, the Donilon camp — which called for full coordination with the Russians and ruled out arming the Syrian opposition — emerged victorious. Accordingly, Kerry went to Moscow at the beginning of May and surprised many by reaching an understanding with the Russians on holding a new international conference on Syria to reach an agreement on the implementation of the Geneva Accords, agreed upon on June 30, 2012. This agreement, according to all reports, was in line with the Russian stance since it did not refer to Bashar Al Assad’s future.
The Americans thought that the Geneva Conference would help contain the growing regional involvement in the crisis. They also hoped that this initiative would grant them a face-saving exit, while not wishing to take decisive steps in response to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons. In addition, the agreement would serve as a means to alleviate the pressures from Arab and European allies to do more to undermine the position of the Syrian regime.
The US position communicated to the Russians was that failure to hold the Geneva Conference would lead to arming the opposition. Using the issue of chemical weapons to justify arming the opposition was only a means to applying pressure on the Russians to work harder to bring their Syrian ally to the table of negotiations.
Dr Marwan Kabalan is the Dean of the Faculty of International Relations and Diplomacy at the University of Kalamoon, Damascus.