The Daily Beast’s Eli Lake and Josh Rogin published a striking report on Friday taking the reader inside the administration’s decision making process leading to an aborted push for strikes inside Syria. It is clear from the reporting in The Daily Beast that it was Barack Obama himself who was the most skeptical about pursuing strikes inside Syria.
For more than a week, administration officials had been talking tough about ISIS. Secretary of State John Kerry said that they “will be crushed.” Defense Sec. Chuck Hagel noted that the Islamic State is “beyond anything that we’ve seen,” and the United States must “cold, steely hard look” at the threat and “get ready” to address it. “This is an organization that has an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision which will eventually have to be defeated,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey echoed.
Given these statements from administration officials, it came as something of a shock when the president took to the podium on Thursday and tamped down speculation that a strike in Syria against ISIS was imminent. “We don’t have a strategy yet,” he said.
“Those inside the administration advocating for going after ISIS in both Iraq and Syria were sorely disappointed – and lamented their boss’s lack of urgency in rooting out a threat that only days before was being described in near-apocalyptic terms,” Lake and Rogin reported.
Obama addressed the White House press corps Thursday afternoon just before personally chairing a meeting of his National Security Council, his top cabinet members and national security staffers. The meeting was the culmination of an intense week-long process that included series of lower level meetings and at last one Principals’ Committee that officials described as an effort to convince Obama to expand his air war against ISIS in Iraq to Syria as well.
But before the meeting even started, the president seemed to have made up his mind.
One former Pentagon official with Iraq combat experience told The Daily Beast’s reporters that Obama’s statements may lead ISIS to “act with greater impunity” now that they believe U.S. strikes in their Syrian strongholds are not immediately forthcoming.
The White House is facing a difficult position in Syria. There were some deep divisions in the administration about how to execute a strategy inside Syria that would aid the Free Syrian Army headquartered in the city of Aleppo while simultaneously punishing Islamic State forces. All the while, the strikes would have to be carefully executed so that they did not provide Bashar al-Assad’s forces with any strategic benefits.
While this is a frustrating situation, one of the administration’s own making, some in the Obama White House did advocate for taking strikes on the infrastructure in areas controlled by ISIS. This report indicates, however, that Obama overruled them and strikes in Syria will not be undertaken any time soon.