The crisis in Syria is still in full throttle. President Obama pretends to be a powerless bystander in Syria when in fact US policy has played an important role in creating the quagmire now playing out. For example, the events of this past weekend present a microcosm of how US policy has failed and it’s time for the US president to take responsibility and to change US policy while he still has a chance.
Let’s start by taking a look at the last few days.
Last week news came out that “Division 30”, a heavily criticized $500 million plan approved by Congress as a last ditch effort to recruit a U.S.-trained fighting force of “moderate rebels” to take on ISIS in Syria, had produced “just four or five American-trained fighters.” Then over the weekend news broke that a group of 75 US-trained rebels entered Syria from Turkey to join Division 30 but several of the US-trained fighters instead joined a group called Suqur al-Jabal instead.
Now, news is coming out that none of the US-trained force actually made it to Division 30 and instead “betrayed their American backers and handed their weapons over to al-Qaeda in Syria immediately after re-entering the country.”
From The Telegraph:
Fighters with Division 30, the “moderate” rebel division favoured by the United States, surrendered to the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, a raft of sources claimed on Monday night.
Division 30 was the first faction whose fighters graduated from a US-led training programme in Turkey which aims to forge a force on the ground in Syria to fight against Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isil).
A statement on Twitter by a man calling himself Abu Fahd al-Tunisi, a member of al-Qaeda’s local affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, read: “A strong slap for America… the new group from Division 30 that entered yesterday hands over all of its weapons to Jabhat al-Nusra after being granted safe passage.
“They handed over a very large amount of ammunition and medium weaponry and a number of pick-ups.”
Abu Khattab al-Maqdisi, who also purports to be a Jabhat al-Nusra member, added that Division 30’s commander, Anas Ibrahim Obaid,had explained to Jabhat al-Nusra’s leaders that he had tricked the coalition because he needed weapons.
“He promised to issue a statement… repudiating Division 30, the coalition, and those who trained him,” he tweeted. “And he also gave a large amount of weapons to Jabhat al-Nusra.”
— Charles Lister (@Charles_Lister) September 22, 2015
If that wasn’t enough of a black eye for the already dysfunctional US program, the chief of staff of “Division 30” had announced his resignation on Saturday:
Colonel Mohammad al-Daher, Division 30’s chief of staff, said in a statement published on social media platforms Saturday that he resigned due to six factors, including slow implementation of the unit’s training program, a lack of a sufficient number of trainees and failure to provide the basic needs required for the group’s work. He also cited a “lack of seriousness” in implementing the program that established Division 30.
So who is left to take over the Division 30 program? At the State Department press briefing Monday spokesperson Admiral John Kirby responded to related queries:
QUESTION: You said the Secretary is very focused on this and there’s just a need to support the opposition. Were there any Syrian opposition figures in the group that he met yesterday from Syria, or were these just —
MR KIRBY: No, no.
QUESTION: Do you know off the top of your head even roughly when the last time the Secretary either met with or spoke with someone who is – would be considered a leader of the moderate Syrian opposition?
MR KIRBY: I’ll have to get back to you, Matt.
Obama has washed his hands of blame over this ongoing fiasco. Last week New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker’s, Finger-Pointing, but Few Answers, After a Syria Solution Fails, got a lot of attention, from American Enterprise Institute “[T]hey made me do it“, to Mother Jones’ “[T]he buck stops in the Oval Office”. Baker reported Obama had always been skeptical of training Syrian rebels and “the White House says it is not to blame.”
The finger, it says, should be pointed not at Mr. Obama but at those who pressed him to attempt training Syrian rebels in the first place — a group that, in addition to congressional Republicans, happened to include former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.”
…. The military was correct in concluding that “this was a more difficult endeavor than we assumed and that we need to make some changes to that program,” Mr. Earnest said. “But I think it’s also time for our critics to ‘fess up in this regard as well. They were wrong.”……
“It is true that we have found this to be a difficult challenge,” Mr. Earnest said. “But it is also true that many of our critics had proposed this specific option as essentially the cure-all for all of the policy challenges that we’re facing in Syria right now. That is not something that this administration ever believed, but it is something that our critics will have to answer for.”
I agree with Obama’s critics, he should own up. It’s not enough to just say ‘I was always skeptical and this proves I was right all along’. The outcome of the program should not come as a surprise to the administration. A classified 2012 US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report (PDF), recently released by Judicial Watch, warned that empowering opposition forces would strengthen Islamist forces. And this is exactly what has happened. Regardless of who ever pushed this plan (“Exactly what the supporting powers of the opposition want”), Obama approved it.
Division 30 is just part of a massive influx of resources the US is putting towards the fighting in Syria. At Monday’s press briefing John Kirby stated we had, thus far, invested $4.5 billion since the start of the refugee crisis. David Ignatius reported in August that Division 30, the overt Special Operations program, was separate from the “parallel covert program run by the CIA” in Syria. According to Washington Post’s Greg Miller and Karen DeYoung that program “has become one the agency’s largest covert operations, with a budget approaching $1 billion a year.” But whatever we spend pales in comparison to the suffering on the ground.
Meanwhile, GOP politicians including several presidential candidates are blaming Obama for the Russian build up in Syria. At Monday’s State Department press briefing Admiral Kirby parried questions about Russia’s “expanding their military presence on the ground”, U.S. intentions regarding Assad’s departure/”political transition,” concerns about the US negotiations regarding Syria with Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the acknowledgement that “Iran would have to be a part of the process”:
MR KIRBY: I didn’t see Ambassador Crocker’s comments. I would just tell you that our relationship with Russia exists on many levels. Russia was very cooperative in achieving the Iran deal. There are issues where we agree and issues where we can work together, and obviously, there are issues of concern and disagreement, not to mention what’s going on in Ukraine, which the Secretary hasn’t clearly lost focus on.
So it’s a complicated relationship. There are areas where we can cooperate; areas where, obviously, we have to express our differences.
QUESTION: Can I ask a question on —
MR KIRBY: Yeah. Samir.
QUESTION: Yes. The Secretary said that Assad departure will – should come as a result of the negotiations. Is this position came as a result from the talks with the Russians, or did the Secretary believe in this position from before?
MR KIRBY: He’s – no, it’s not something that resulted from recent discussions with Lavrov. What he said was we’re prepared to negotiate. The question is, are – is Assad, and are the Russians, and are the Iranians? And those are, again, discussions that haven’t been had yet.
QUESTION: So always he thought that Assad – Assad’s departure should come as a result of negotiations?
MR KIRBY: There’s been no change in the Secretary’s position in terms of a transition away from Assad and how that has to happen. It has to happen – it’s got to be a political transition, right? Political solution. You’re not going to get at a political transition or solution without talk, without conversation, without dialogue, without negotiation.
QUESTION: Well, when he came here in February, 2013, I think it was his first kind of talk, was about changing Assad’s calculus by supporting a more active and stronger opposition against him. And that’s different from working with the Russians and the Iranians on some sort of transition strategy. Do you see —
MR KIRBY: Not necessarily.
QUESTION: Not necessarily?
MR KIRBY: No, Brad. It can be inclusive. It can be inclusive of also working to strengthen and bolster the opposition. I’ve said many times, and certainly since Doha, that one of the things that Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the United States have already discussed is: How do you continue to work with the opposition? How do you bolster them in their position? How do you help unify them? All of that’s a part of this discussion. I mean – don’t – but —
QUESTION: Right, but —
QUESTION: Two and a half years later, the opposition’s a lot weaker than it was even when he first came in. So that —
QUESTION: And it was about changing his calculus – it was about changing the battlefield situation on the ground so then in turn that would change his calculus, that he had to go. So now you have the Russians – are changing his calculus; they are changing the battlefield situation, because they’re expanding their military presence on the ground. So that does change his calculus, just in the opposite direction.
MR KIRBY: Well, the worry, the concern, the reason why we want to continue to have these conversations is because of the potential for this activity to be designed more about propping up Assad than about going after extremists.
But back to your point that you – we want to change his calculus is still true. There’s many ways to do that, and nobody’s lost sight of the need to continue to work with and for a moderate opposition that could work towards helping bring about this political transition. So just that – just the fact that we’re talking with the Russians and the Saudis about this doesn’t mean that we’ve given up any desire to continue to work with and for a moderate opposition.
QUESTION: Just with respect – on Syria?
MR KIRBY: Sure.
QUESTION: Okay. First of all, is still the level of communication and your relationship with the opposition is the same, or it’s changed? Syrian opposition, I mean.
MR KIRBY: We continue to engage the Syrian opposition on many levels. One of the challenges is that it’s not a homogenous organization and not all of them have the same exact goals.
QUESTION: Are there – are they – are – they are part of this process that you are taking place – is taking place —
MR KIRBY: Well, as I said, coming out of Doha, one of the things that the Secretary wanted to see was a way to move forward in such a way that the opposition could be a part of this process.
QUESTION: And the last one. You are mentioning Russia and Saudi Arabia are part of this process. Do you see any – foresee any role for Iran or Turkey to play in this process?
MR KIRBY: Both the President and the Secretary have talked about the fact that at some point, Iran would have to be a part of this. And I – we’re just not there yet, but I think he’s acknowledged – he acknowledged it again over the weekend, that Iran would have to be a part of the process. And if there’s room for that and – then he’s willing to work towards that and consider it.
Imagine that. There’s only one person at the helm of U.S. foreign policy and that’s President Obama. He’s got another 15 months in office. If the U.S. can be part of a diplomatic solution to bring stability to Syria, this would be the time to do it.
Own up Obama, to your mistakes and your power.