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Obama’s Much-Conflicted Syrian Policy



President Obama’s policy toward Syria is getting pulled in so many directions that it lacks any coherence, especially since the U.S.-backed Syrian “moderate” rebels are in a tacit alliance with al-Qaeda’s offshoots that are the target of the U.S. airstrikes, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar describes.

By Paul R. Pillar

The U.S. air war in Syria has not gotten off to an encouraging start. For many observers the principal indicator of that is a lack of setbacks for ISIS, as the group continues to besiege a Kurdish-held town near the Turkish border.

We ought to be at least as discouraged, however, by the negative reactions to the airstrikes from the “moderate” Syrian opposition groups that the strikes are supposed to help and in whom so much hope is being placed if U.S. policy toward the Syrian conflict is to begin to make any sense.



President Barack Obama in his weekly address on Sept. 13, 2014, vowing to degrade and ultimately defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. (White House Photo)

Harakat Hazm, a group considered sufficiently moderate and effective to have received the first shipments of U.S.-made anti-tank weapons, called the U.S. campaign “a sign of failure whose devastation will spread to the whole region.”

It is early in that campaign, of course, and if searching hard enough one can also find some more encouraging signs. The airstrikes in Iraq still have more support. And ISIS in Syria at least seems to have seen the necessity of lowering its visibility in places it controls such as Raqqa — although its blending even more closely into the civilian population will make future airstrikes that much harder to do.

Despite administration statements about having to think in long-haul terms, patience in Washington will wear thin amid meager results. Pressures for escalation will increasingly be felt. In response to comments from opposition groups about how the airstrikes are insufficiently coordinated with, and have not aided, their operations on the ground, expect to hear more talk in Washington about a need for putting U.S. personnel on that ground.

That sort of talk ought to be met with a reminder of the fundamental reasons — the inconvenient facts of the Syrian situation that constitute a still-unsquared circle — that will continue to make for poor results.

One reason is the multidimensional nature of the Syrian conflict, in which in the absence of a credible Syrian political alternative the United States has in effect taken the side of a Syrian regime that it supposedly still wants to oust, and in which the opposition groups in which the United States has placed its faith have significantly different priorities from Washington.

Opposition groups have been particularly critical of the United States targeting of the Al-Nusra Front, which is an understandable target for the United States given that group’s status as an affiliate of Al-Qaeda, but which many of the other groups have seen as an effective ally in the fight against the Assad regime.

Another reason is the inevitable damage and resulting anger and resentment from airstrikes, even though high-tech U.S. weapons are far more discriminating than the Syrian regime’s barrel bombs. Some of the resentment-generating impact of the U.S. strikes so far has been indirect and economic rather than direct and kinetic. Attacks on targets such as oil refineries, power plants, and granaries have caused shortages and price rises that have hurt civilians at least as much as they have impeded ISIS.

And related to that is the potential for the United States to make itself a bigger issue in Syria than either ISIS or the regime. There already are worrisome signs that Al-Nusra and ISIS are repairing their breach from last year and campaigning in tandem against the U.S. intervention by portraying it as a war against Islam.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (

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