1. The Syrian Track
When President Obama first came to office in 2009 he — and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — hoped that what one State Department official called the “Syrian-Israeli track” would open a door to peace in the Middle East. It may not have been a crazy idea — but it never went anywhere.
2. Ignoring Syria
As the “Arab Spring” spread and protesters sought to unseat President Bashar al-Assad, the Obama Administration had tough words, but little action. “President Obama’s reluctance to engage in Syria has been understandable. Perhaps he now understands that disengagement also has consequences, many of them unintended,” his former top Syria aide, Fred Hof, wrote recently.
3. Mixed Messages To The Syrian Rebels
The US promised weapons and support — and repeatedly hinted at more. They even sent weapons, indirectly, to some rebel groups. But the talk may have done more harm than good, fueling Assad’s attacks without ever providing enough arms to turn the tide of war.
4. Drawing the “Red Line”
“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation,” the president said on August 20, 2012. But there appears to have been no clear plan to enforce that line amid growing evidence of some chemical weapons use in Syria.
5. A Promise of Consequences
Secretary of State John Kerry blamed the Syrian government for the “moral obscenity” of chemical attacks — and promised that “President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people.” So far, there hasn’t been any.
6. Not Confident Enough For War?
The Administration — operating in the shadow of the Bush Administration’s misleading case for the Iraq war — at times appeared to lack confidence in its case that Assad’s regime was behind the chemical weapons strikes, as in this intelligence assessment released on August 30.
7. An Abrupt Detour To Congress
President Obama’s decision to put strikes on Syria to a vote won broad praise from Capitol Hill — but nobody pretended it had been part of anything resembling a plan.
8. Gaffe Central
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s testimony to sell the war was widely panned, and privately credited with pushing at least one Senator into opposition. Secretary of State John Kerry, meanwhile, had to walk back a suggestion that he’d send American soldiers to Syria.
9. The Winner
The White House engaged in a years-long standoff with Russian President Vladimir Putin over how to deal with Syria — then played straight into his hands, making Assad’s key patron look both relevant and responsible.