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Thursday, 7 February 2013
For Syria, Obama Chooses The Right Policy (But Undoubtedly Not For The Right Reasons)

From The Wall St. Journal:

Feb. 7, 2013

Obama Blocked Rebel Arms to Syria

White House Stymied Pentagon, CIA, State Plan to Ship Weapons to Syrian Resistance

[image] Reuters

A Syrian rebel fighter and a comrade tote a B-10 recoilless rifle down a dust-filled stairway Thursday in Damascus.

WASHINGTON—A proposal to arm Syrian rebels was backed by the Pentagon, the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency, but the White House decided not to act on the plan, reflecting the extent of divisions over the U.S. role in the bloody conflict.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Marine Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Mr. Obama's top military adviser, revealed publicly for the first time at a Senate hearing on Thursday that they supported a proposal last year by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then-CIA director Gen. David Petraeus.

President Barack Obama's top national-security leaders came to favor the plan last year, with the meltdown of an international diplomatic initiative to end the Syrian civil war.

The White House stalled the proposal because of lingering questions about which rebels could be trusted with the arms, whether the transfers would make a difference in the campaign to remove Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and whether the weapons would add to the suffering, U.S. officials said.

The disclosures thrust a spotlight on the extent to which Mr. Obama charts his own course in the face of calls to action by members of his own team, and on the extent of his caution about entering a new conflict.

In the months after the start of the conflict in Syria in March 2011, the Pentagon, the State Department and the CIA began presenting the White House with multiple options for intervening with force, covert action or arms supplies. Options have included establishing a no-fly zone, bombing Syrian aircraft in their hangars, and funneling light arms and actionable intelligence to a select group of American-vetted rebels.

Gen. Dempsey and other Pentagon leaders had long voiced caution about any military intervention, including a no-fly zone, because of Syria's advanced air defenses and concerns about upsetting Russia. Pentagon officials feared Moscow could interfere with some U.S. supply lines to Afghanistan.

Pentagon officials, like others in the administration, were also wary of supporting rebels whose intentions and allegiances remained unclear, though CIA officers in the field had advocated providing arms to select rebels deemed friendly to the West, to build good will for the day when Mr. Assad is gone, according to U.S. officials.

A key turning point for many at the State Department came after a diplomatic initiative led by international envoy Kofi Annan broke down in June, 2012, current and former officials said. The U.S. had seen the plan, which was supported by Russia and other major powers, as a breakthrough that would lead to a transitional governing body for Syria.

The deal's demise spurred support within the State Department for arming the rebels, according to U.S. officials. Mrs. Clinton joined forces with Gen. Petraeus to push for the administration to embrace a proposal for delivering arms.

Advocates said doing so would provide the U.S. with opportunities to shape events on the ground and build alliances.

As the proposal gained momentum in the late summer and early fall, Mr. Panetta and Gen. Dempsey threw in their support, a position the two men kept private until Thursday's Senate hearing.

The proposal was also backed at the time by the nation's top spy, James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, officials said.

Around the same time, in a reflection of the ongoing debate, a team of CIA intelligence analysts found that the introduction of U.S. arms wouldn't have "materially impacted" the situation on the ground or helped the rebels overthrow Mr. Assad, officials said. The rebels were already getting substantial quantities of weapons from other countries, including U.S. allies in the Gulf, one of the officials said. Such findings carry far less weight than a formal intelligence assessment produced by the director of National Intelligence.

But as the proposal was gaining steam, its leading advocates were preparing to leave the administration. Gen. Petraeus resigned in November, over revelations that he had an extramarital affair.

Mr. Obama, in December, recognized a revamped Syrian opposition movement, but has since made no moves to introduce more arms into the conflict.

The disclosures about the senior defense officials' support for the proposal came in response to sharp questions from Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) at a hearing on Thursday which was called to examine the military's response to the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on Americans in Benghazi, Libya, but which also delved into other foreign-policy challenges, including the conflict in Syria.

"How many more have to die before you recommend military action?" Sen. McCain asked Gen. Dempsey and Mr. Panetta, citing United Nations estimates that up to 60,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war. "And did you support the recommendation by…then-Secretary of State Clinton and then head of CIA, Gen. Petraeus, that we provide weapons to the resistance in Syria?"

Both Gen. Dempsey and Mr. Panetta said they did.

Mr. Panetta said he agreed with Mrs. Clinton and Gen. Petraeus but also supported Mr. Obama's decision not to act on the proposal. "Obviously there were a number of factors that were involved here that ultimately led to the president's decision to make it nonlethal," Mr. Panetta said.

Mr. Panetta, who is preparing to step down from his post, "isn't committed to lethal aid now," and believes more study is required before proceeding, an official close to the defense secretary said.

Aides to Gen. Dempsey, Mrs. Clinton and Gen. Petraeus had no immediate comment on the officials' positions after the testimony.

In Syria, rebel groups had hoped that Mr. Obama's re-election would give him the political leeway to throw support behind the Syrian opposition. But current and former officials said the rebels misjudged the White House, which remains reluctant to enter a new conflict.

Current and former officials said the path forward for the administration remains unclear.

Mr. Kerry, the new secretary of State, and Chuck Hagel, Mr. Obama's nominee to succeed Mr. Panetta at the Pentagon, are seen as more closely aligned with Mr. Obama's cautious approach to intervention in Syria than their predecessors.

But officials said John Brennan, Mr. Obama's longtime counterterrorism chief and nominee to succeed Mr. Petraeus as CIA director, could embrace greater covert action in Syria. Mr. Brennan is close to Mr. Obama and has made clear his concern about al Qaeda's growing strength in Syria.

While Mr. Obama has avoided military involvement, he has authorized nonlethal support to the rebels as well as humanitarian assistance. In one possible exception, he has warned Mr. Assad that using chemical weapons would be a "red line" that could prompt an American response.

Posted on 02/07/2013 7:22 PM by Hugh Fitzgerald
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