Of all the myths that pass for conventional wisdom in Washington in the late Obama years, perhaps one of the most intractable is the idea that the president has “done nothing” concerning Syria.
According to a Robert S. Ford, who served as US Ambassador to Syria (2010–14), and is now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, the Obama administration has followed a “hands-off” policy regarding Syria, claiming that the president and other senior administration officials have “been reluctant to use all tools available to create pressure” on the Syrian government. And last week The New York Times reported that 51 mid-level State Department officials authored a “dissent cable” to Secretary John Kerry urging the United States to carry out “military strikes against the government of President Bashar al-Assad.” The Times noted further that Foggy Bottom’s pinstriped dissidents have long “chafed at the White House’s refusal to be drawn into the conflict in Syria.”
Yet far from “refusing to be drawn into the conflict in Syria,” the Obama administration has actively financed and trained so-called “moderate” Syrian rebels (who are in fact Salafist extremists in league with Al Qaeda) since 2013. The administration’s parallel efforts—one by the CIA, followed by another run out of the Pentagon—has helped to destabilize the region, contribute to the refugee crisis, and, in targeting the sovereign government of Bashar al-Assad, helped strengthen the geostrategic position of ISIS.
Still worse, American proxies have been working hand in glove with radical Sunni opponents of the secular Assad government. Even Ford publicly admitted in January 2015, “For a long time we have looked the other way while the Nusra Front and armed groups on the ground, some of which are getting help from us, have coordinated in military operations against the regime.”
Indeed, by 2015 the fiction of a “moderate” opposition had become increasingly difficult to maintain. According to the journalist Gareth Porter, “the idea that an independent ‘moderate’ armed opposition still existed” was “necessary to provide a political fig leaf for the covert and indirect U.S. reliance on Al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise’s military success.”
Efforts to halt the administration’s illegal and counterproductive war for regime change in Syria have been lead by Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. Last year, Gabbard, a two-tour Iraq war veteran, sponsored a bill that would cut off funding for what Gabbard calls the administration’s “regime-change war in Syria.”