Obama Rejects Increasing Support for Syria’s Rebels

The president disagrees with his own advisors on supporting Syria’s opposition.

President Barack Obama confers with his chief of staff, Denis McDonough, as he talks on the phone in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, February 6
President Barack Obama confers with his chief of staff, Denis McDonough, as he talks on the phone in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, February 6 (White House/Pete Souza)

In a stunning disclosure of American policy on Syria, Foreign Policy magazine has learned that President Barack Obama rejected a request from his own national security advisors to provide military equipment to the Middle Eastern country’s rebels.

The items that were discussed were nonlethal, meaning that shipping weapons and ammunition to the rebels who are battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad was never on the table. But night vision goggles and body armor that could have made its way into the hands of Syria’s rebels would have nonetheless assisted the opponents of Assad in the fight by making them more effective in the field.

The fact that President Obama refused to expand American assistance to the Syrian resistance is not, in itself, entirely startling. His administration has gone against the wishes of its national-security establishment in the past, most notably when the White House shot down a plan to funnel weapons to vetted opposition groups.

It is nevertheless surprising to learn that President Obama does not agree with some of his very top advisors, again.

Throughout his administration’s first term, the president’s staff was seen as lockstep on most issues of national security importance. The team surrounding Obama has, for the most part, been likeminded. Such was the case on Afghanistan, when the president decided to start withdrawing troops in 2014, as well as on Iraq, when the White House followed through on its pledge to pull out American forces before the end of 2012. While those decisions were made with some objections from the military, the administration was unified behind its policy.

The Syrian Civil War appears to have finally broken that trend with even Obama’s close circle breaking ranks with the president. The Departments of Defense and State, the intelligence community and National Security Council clearly want the United States to become a more proactive power on the ground, particularly as the monthly death toll has reached a crescendo during the month of March. Few want to introduce American soldiers into the conflict directly, so strengthening the rebels’ military capabilities with weapons and intelligence support remains the best option. Yet it is President Obama himself who is still wary of thrusting the nation deeper into an armed conflict that is about as messy as the lengthy occupation was in Iraq.

Whether or not Obama’s views are right or wrong is overshadowed by a much bigger point: the president is seeing his support on the issue evaporate in Congress as well as in his own government. High ranking Democratic legislators who were once viewed as dependable and loyal followers of the president’s are critical of his Syrian policy, joining Republicans in calling for more aggressive American action against the Assad regime.