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Obama's larger Syria strategy in disarray

Sunday - 9/15/2013, 3:32am  ET

FILE - In this Sept. 10, 2013, photo, President Barack Obama addresses the nation in a live televised speech from the East Room of the White House in Washington. After two-and-a-half years of civil war, Obama’s larger Syria policy is in disarray even as his administration with help from Russia averted a military showdown for the time-being. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, Pool)

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- After 2½ years of civil war in Syria, President Barack Obama's larger policy is in disarray even as his administration, with help from Russia, averted a military showdown for the time being.

U.S. and Russian diplomats, meeting in Geneva, said Saturday they had a deal on a framework for Syria to destroy its chemical weapons. The officials intend to seek a U.N. Security Council resolution that could authorize penalties, short of military action, if Syrian President Bashar Assad's government fails to comply.

Four days earlier, in an address to the American people, Obama said he was working with U.S. allies to "provide humanitarian support, to help the moderate opposition and to shape a political settlement" for ending a conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people and made refugees of millions more.

That simple message belies a hodgepodge of often contradicting goals and strategies unlikely to be resolved by the new international effort to get Assad's government to relinquish its chemical weapons or by any U.S. military action, if diplomacy fails.

These include Obama's vacillations on providing military assistance to rebels as part of a peace strategy and his repeated demand that Assad relinquish power but still retain a veto over any replacement government.

The difficulty in understanding what America is trying to do in Syria has persisted in the current debate over how to respond to the Assad government's alleged use of chemical weapons.

Threatening military reprisals, Obama said that the "United States military doesn't do pinpricks" only a day after his top diplomat, Secretary of State John Kerry, promised an "unbelievably small" operation.

The administration's top national security officials have spoken ambiguously about doing anything militarily to shift the battlefield momentum toward rebels trying to overthrow the Syrian leader -- a stated U.S. policy objective.

In the last few days Obama has turned again to help from Russia, a Syrian ally the U.S. repeatedly has accused of being complicit in the Assad government's wartime atrocities.

A look at how U.S. policy in Syria has evolved:


Arab Spring-inspired demonstrations erupt across Syria in March 2011. The unrest comes as the Obama administration is hoping to coax Assad into ending Syria's alliance with Iran and support for militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah. As the protests spread and reprisals worsen, U.S. engagement narrows to trying to get the Syrian government to respect political opponents and move toward democracy.

Amid calls for a tougher U.S. response, then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton says Assad is seen by some U.S. lawmakers as a "reformer." Days earlier, Kerry, then a U.S. senator, argues that Syria is poised for change "as it embraces a legitimate relationship with the United States and the West." The administration resists calls over the next months to recall the U.S. ambassador, the first senior American posted to Damascus in five years. Obama reacts to increased brutality by Assad's forces in April by ordering the first of several new sets of sanctions against Syria. Violence escalates, with Assad sending tanks into cities throughout the summer. Citizens and defecting soldiers take up arms against government. By August, Obama has seen enough. He publicly calls on Assad to resign.


The U.S. and allies take their case to the United Nations in October 2011, asking the Security Council to condemn human rights violations in Syria and demand an end to violence. Russia and China veto the resolution. That month, the U.S. pulls Ambassador Robert Ford out of Damascus because of security concerns as Washington's relationship with Assad's government worsens. Ford returns in December, then leaves for good two months later. The U.S. tries anew at the U.N. in February 2012, backing an Arab-proposed plan to hold Syrian human rights violators accountable. Russia and China again exercise their veto; Clinton calls their actions "despicable."

Stymied at the U.N., the U.S. turns to its Arab and European allies and convenes the first "Friends of Syria" conference in Tunisia to find ways to support Syria's opposition and weaken Assad's control. U.S. intelligence officials start warning for the first time about al-Qaida and other extremist militants joining the fray. Still hopeful of finding a peaceful resolution, the U.S. urges that no one send weapons to either the government or the rebels. The violence worsens. In March 2012, Obama pledges "nonlethal" aid to the rebels. The U.N. says about 8,000 are dead after a year of violence.


Secretary of State Clinton believes she secures Russia's commitment on a path forward in June 2012 with the "Geneva process." It calls for a Syrian transitional government through negotiation between Assad's government and the opposition. The diplomatic strategy is presented as a way out of the crisis because both Assad and the rebels would be able to veto any transition government candidates.

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