It is the height of irony that White House officials are now calling for a tougher line on Russia. The very same White House went out of its way to politicize intelligence on Syria to avoid meaningful intervention that would have potentially ended the slaughter and prevented Russia from establishing a strategic foothold there.
It began with select leaks to the press in August 2013, when unnamed officials began casting plausible deniability on whether the Syrian regime was behind the horrific mass chemical attack that killed nearly 2,000 civilians in Damascus.
Then, in US President Barack Obama’s 2016 interview with Jeffery Goldberg, his reticence in standing by the infamous “red line” on Syria was partly justified with a reference to how the former Director of National Intelligence Gen. James Clapper warned that the intelligence on the chemical strike was not “a slam dunk.”
Unnamed senior White House officials would also leak references to the misleading intelligence that led to the Iraq war as justification to cast just the right amount of doubt on whether the intelligence on the chemical strike warranted a robust military response.
White House officials went even further in describing to the press, both on the record and in selective leaks, that the Pentagon’s intelligence suggested that the Syrian regime’s integrated air defense system would pose an acute danger to US aircraft if airstrikes were launched against regime targets.
White House allies, such as former House majority leader Nancy Pelosi, were trotted out to parrot the caveat that while the regime’s violation of the chemical weapons “red line” was unacceptable, his air defense system could cause American military casualties.
Never mind that the Israeli Air Force had time and again penetrated the regime’s air defense system in its most densely concentrated positions around Damascus. Or that the regime’s integrated air defense system prior to the Russian intervention was so thoroughly weakened by 2013 because so many air defense sites had fallen to the rebels.
Compounding the schizophrenic nature of its Syria policy, the Obama administration itself used the regime’s small-scale use of sarin gas as justification in April 2013 for deciding to begin arming a limited section of Syrian rebels.
Politicized intelligence on Syria was used by the White House to avoid intervention for another reason that did not surface until years later: Unbeknownst to the world at the time, the Obama administration was involved in advanced negotiations with Tehran.
Given the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ expansive presence in Syria by 2013, it was clear that Obama likely worried that holding Syrian President Bashar Assad accountable would seriously jeopardize the secret talks with Tehran. If there ever was a textbook definition of twisting intelligence to suit one’s political agenda, the Obama administration set the standard in its dissembling on what its Syria policy stood for.
It is difficult to escape the conclusion that when it suited him, Obama was readily prepared to accept a level of political revisionism and tailored intelligence that conveniently backed his flawed conclusions on Syria and protected his single-minded devotion to reaching an accommodation with Iran.
For those criticizing President-elect Donald Trump for not being sufficiently “tough” with Russia, this would be a good time to remember how Obama continuously cited fear of Moscow’s reaction (well before Russian forces entered Syria en masse) as a reason to not take action in Syria that would have stopped Daesh before it gained traction and saved hundreds of thousands of lives.
In an effort to defend his legacy amid the genocidal conditions in Syria that his policy helped catalyze, Obama is attempting to shape the narrative by pointing to intelligence — whether on Assad’s chemical weapons culpability or the true strength of his air defense network — that casts doubts on the utility of intervening in Syria.
Even more galling, the administration still sticks to the line that the reversal on the Syrian “red line” led to a negotiated deal with the Russians that succeeded in having Assad give up his chemical weapons arsenal entirely. Yet again, this narrative has been thoroughly proven false.
In multiple closed-door intelligence briefings to Congress, there have been clear indicators that the regime did not fully declare its binary chemical weapon stockpile and associated chemical precursors needed to produce sarin and VX gas. Again, conveniently, Obama would rather the public perceive his capitulation to Russia and Iran in Syria as a “victory” of diplomacy.
The sad reality is that amid the ongoing uproar on the intelligence community’s findings on Russian cyber influence operations, and the debate on whether the findings have been politicized, it is often overlooked how Obama cynically offered Russia and Iran a grand opportunity to expand their influence in Syria and the Middle East. The global repercussions of this outcome are only just beginning to be felt.
It may be easy for pundits and the media to hit at Trump’s approach to foreign policy. However, we should never lose sight that it was Obama’s willingness to manipulate facts and intelligence, in addition to his fear of upsetting Moscow and Tehran, that underpins his foreign policy legacy on Syria.
• Oubai Shahbandar is a former Department of Defense senior adviser, and currently a strategic communications consultant specializing in Middle Eastern and Gulf affairs.