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White House Is Weighing a Syria Retreat

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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A week into Russia's military intervention in Syria, some top White House advisers and National Security Council staffers are trying to persuade President Barack Obama to scale back U.S. engagement there, to focus on lessening the violence and, for now, to give up on toppling the Syrian regime.

In addition, administration officials and Middle East experts on both sides of the debate tell us, Obama's foreign-policy team no longer doubts that Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to prop up President Bashar al-Assad and primarily target opposition groups other than the Islamic State, including those trained by the Central Intelligence Agency.

The administration came to this conclusion late. Despite warnings from U.S. intelligence agencies that Putin's military buildup was intended to keep Assad in power, the White House nonetheless decided to explore cooperating with Russia on the ground. Throughout the summer and into the fall, top Russian officials -- including Putin himself in a meeting last month with Obama at the U.N. -- said they were not committed to keeping Assad in power for the long term, and would only target Islamic State fighters in their military offensive, according to U.S. officials.

These officials no longer believe Russia was telling the truth. Reuters reported this week that Putin was planning his Syria intervention for months with Iranian officials, while misleading the West. Now any hope that the U.S. and Russia could work together on stabilizing Syria has ended.

At the same time, Obama has ruled out engaging in a proxy war with Putin's military, leaving few good options. One path, however, would mean finding ways to tamp down the fighting by negotiating small, local ceasefires with the Assad regime.

“The White House somehow thinks we can de-escalate the conflict while keeping Assad in power,” one senior administration official told us.

That view, being pushed by top White House National Security staffers, including senior coordinator for the Middle East Rob Malley, is not new. But it has received fresh emphasis given Russian intervention.

If Assad is staying and there’s no political process in sight, this argument goes, the U.S. might as well focus on alleviating the suffering of the Syrian people and mitigate the growing refugee crisis.

Local ceasefires have been struck sporadically throughout the war, mostly in areas under siege by the Assad regime. The United Nations special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has been pushing this idea for over a year.

“The current policy of the United States and its partners, to increase pressure on Assad so that he ‘comes to the table’ and negotiates his own departure, must be rethought,” Malley’s predecessor at the National Security Council, Philip Gordon, wrote at Politico as Russia was amassing its forces in Syria.

The NSC view is opposed by top officials in other parts of the government, especially Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power. They are trying to persuade Obama that the only way to solve Syria is to increase the pressure on Assad in the hopes he will enter negotiations.

Yet Kerry and Power now find themselves without any hope that Putin might bring the Syrian regime to the table. Kerry, though always skeptical of Russia, has been the point man on engaging the Russian government through several conversations with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. But it’s now clear the Russians were leading the Obama administration down the primrose path.

“In Syria, much as it did in Ukraine, Russia has hidden its true intentions, using the ruse of joining the fight against ISIL to provide cover for Russia’s military intervention to prop up the Assad regime,” Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Democrat Jack Reed said Thursday. “Russia’s actions, however, increasingly expose their true objectives.”

The de-escalation and delay-Assad’s-departure approach pushed by Malley and Gordon “has always been on the table. It is fully operative now,” former State Department official Frederic Hof wrote in response to Gordon's Politico article. The problem, he said, is that it won’t work because “neither the regime, nor Tehran, nor Moscow have demonstrated any interest in it.”

White House spokesperson Emily Horne told us that there has been no change in the administration’s position that Assad must go, while also noting that top officials, including Kerry, have publicly acknowledged that the timetable is negotiable. The U.S. is always looking for ways to diminish the violence there, she added: “This is not in any way a substitute or change in our longstanding policy of pressing for a political transition in Syria.”

Other officials told us that while U.S. still has programs in place to aid the moderate opposition, top members of the administration who have been pushing for more of that support, or for the establishment of safe zones in Syria, are increasingly frustrated with the White House’s reluctance. This group included Kerry and General John Allen, the outgoing special envoy to the anti-Islamic State coalition.

Putin's intervention has had the U.S. flummoxed from day one. As the Russian military moved into Syria, U.S. intelligence officials tell us, the intelligence community was skeptical that it intended to focus its military campaign on the Islamic State. Even so, as the New York Times reported, the U.S. was surprised by the speed with which Russia built and then announced its new coalition with the governments of Syria, Iran and Iraq to support its military campaign.

U.S. intelligence officials also told us that while they mistrusted Russian intentions, they did not specifically predict that rebel groups supported by the CIA, such as Tajamu al-Ezzah, would be among the first targets of the air campaign, or that Russian jets would encroach into Turkish air space and lock radar on Turkish jets. Yet both those things happened, and now Congressional oversight committees are reportedly investigating potential intelligence failures before Russia's escalation.

Nevertheless, in those opening days, top White House officials publicly downplayed the Russian actions. “They had a base in Syria. This is not new,” Deputy National Security Advisor for Communications Ben Rhodes said Oct. 1. “Everybody is looking at Putin as if this is some sort of offensive maneuver.”

In a press conference the next day, Obama said he believed Russia was making a strategic mistake by deepening its support for Assad, but emphasized that he would not increase U.S. military intervention in Syria, calling his critics’ ideas “half-baked” and “mumbo jumbo.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker told us this week that by not doing more to confront Putin’s escalation, the administration is tacitly admitting it will no longer be able to secure Assad’s ouster.

“The very acts over the last 10 days dramatically change the position of the two sides relative to the negotiations and certainly stake out the fact that from the Russian and Iranian perspective, which we are not going to challenge, that Assad is there for a while,” he said.

Brian Katulis, a Middle East fellow at the Center for American Progress, told us that Obama’s reluctance to confront the Russians in Syria is symptomatic of his overall reluctance to embroil America in another costly and bloody war in the Middle East.

“If that’s your guiding principle, it helps explain why they might look for a positive initially in what Russia’s doing,” he said. “The end result is a policy that doesn’t shift in any direction despite the changes in the environment.”

Caught between two camps in his administration, Obama may not end up shifting the U.S. approach to Syria at all, although the de-escalation side has the momentum. Either way, as Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime change facts on the ground, the relative position of America and the Syrians it has supported becomes graver by the day.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the authors of this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net