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Obama’s Syria Strategy at a Crossroads

That turnaround on attacking Syria was followed by an interim agreement with Iran to constrain its nuclear program – and now a plan for Syrian peace talks.

The Islamic Front’s capture of a US-stocked supply depot in northern Syria prompted a suspension of those shipments to “moderate” Syrian rebels. The incident also drove home how Islamists are gaining ground – and why President Obama may shift US strategy.

The CIA has been emptying the shelves of its secret warehouses where it stores light weapons whose origins can’t be easily traced back to Washington, sending the materiel to the supposedly “moderate” Syrian rebels. But that “covert operation” is now at a crossroads after Islamists seized a rebel supply depot in northern Syria.

One of President Barack Obama’s longtime fears about providing lethal assistance to the Syrian rebels was just that possibility, that U.S.-supplied weapons would fall into the hands of Islamists, even some tied to al-Qaeda, and thus help to make Syria a new base for terrorism aimed at the West.

That nightmare appears to be fast becoming a reality as jihadists swarm into Syria from around the Muslim world, drawing financial and military support from Saudi Arabia and other right-wing Persian Gulf states, and pushing aside the more secular rebels opposing President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Damascus.

The latest example of this jihadist trend was the Islamic Front’s seizure of the U.S.-backed Supreme Military Council’s headquarters and its supply depot – containing food, trucks and ammunition – near the Turkish border last Friday. The State Department announced on Wednesday that non-lethal supplies to the Syrian rebels would be suspended.

Though the Obama administration presented the suspension as temporary – and it does not apparently affect the CIA’s lethal supply routes to rebels mostly in the south – I’m told that U.S. policy is poised to take what could be a dramatic turn, possibly bringing together an anti-al-Qaeda alliance involving Assad’s army, non-Islamist rebels and even Hezbollah forces.

Obama’s shift in thinking may become more apparent during upcoming peace talks in Switzerland as U.S. and Russian diplomats look for ways to achieve a power-sharing agreement between Assad’s Alawite-dominated regime and the more moderate opposition, which is mostly Sunni. Syria’s Alawite minority is an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Many of Syria’s Christians also continue to back the secular Assad.

However, if Obama moves toward a political agreement that gives the Sunni majority more power without dismantling Assad’s government, the President is sure to be confronted with fierce opposition from the new Saudi-Israeli alliance which has formed around a joint determination to shatter the so-called Shiite Crescent, which now reaches from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon.

Both Saudi Arabia and Israel see Iran as their principal adversary in the region and view the Assad regime as the keystone of Iran’s influence. Though Saudi Arabia and Israel might have preferred less extremist Sunni jihadists to win Syria’s civil war, both countries have indicated a preference for radical Sunnis ruling Syria over Assad, the Iranian ally.

In mid-September, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren announced that Israel wanted Saudi-backed extremists to win if the other possible outcome was continuation of the Iran-backed Assad.

“The greatest danger to Israel is by the strategic arc that extends from Tehran, to Damascus to Beirut. And we saw the Assad regime as the keystone in that arc,” Oren told the Jerusalem Post in an interview. “We always wanted Bashar Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren’t backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran.” He said this was the case even if the other “bad guys” were affiliated with al-Qaeda.

Obama’s Reluctance

But President Obama has grown increasingly leery of the Saudi-Israeli alliance and its obsession with Iran. Over the past several months, he has tilted more toward the Russian position favoring power-sharing concessions from the Assad regime, perhaps even Assad’s eventual departure, but to hold the line against a jihadist victory.

That recognition was a factor in Obama’s decision last summer not to launch military strikes in response to a chemical weapons incident on Aug. 21. The President came to realize that even a limited series of missile attacks to “degrade” Assad’s military might have played into the hands of the jihadists who were being encouraged by the Saudis to seize that moment for a major, possibly decisive offensive.

Obama also feared that U.S. military intervention in Syria might have led to a regional conflagration fought along sectarians lines, pitting the Sunnis against the Shiites, with the Israelis siding with the Sunnis under the old theory that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.” Instead of a possible rapprochement with Shiite-ruled Iran, the United States might have found itself joining Israel in aerial bombardments of Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Peering down that dark alleyway, Obama recoiled. He began searching for a different route, one that would use diplomacy to rid the Syrian government of its chemical weapons and get Iran to accept more restrictions on its nuclear program to ensure that a nuclear bomb would not be built.

Now, I’m told, Obama’s thinking has evolved into a vision of a new strategic order in the Middle East, with Iran and Russia joining with the United States to tamp down the violence across the region and forcing the Israelis to choose between Saudi Arabia (and its jihadist clients) or Obama’s diplomatic initiative to address longstanding problems, including the Palestinian issue.

One source familiar with the Obama administration’s approach said the recent shifts put Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a tough – and possibly untenable – spot, either abandoning his hard-line attitudes or facing a political challenge from more moderate Israelis.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been particularly open in his criticism of Netanyahu for alienating the Obama administration. Recently, Olmert accused Netanyahu of “losing his head,” “declaring war on the United States” and trying to incite the Congress against Obama. But Olmert is far from alone in his opinions. Several ex-Mossad officials have challenged Netanyahu’s obsessive and belligerent approach toward Iran, too.

But it seems unlikely that Netanyahu will back down from this fight. He has yoked up his defenders in the U.S. news media and Congress and gotten them to pull together with hopes of toppling Obama’s diplomatic initiatives. Members of Congress, in thrall to the Israel lobby, are pushing for new economic sanctions against Iran which the Iranians warn will destroy the interim nuclear accord.

Neocons Fight Back

Official Washington’s still-influential neocons also haven’t abandoned their long-range strategy – dating back to their work on Netanyahu’s 1996 campaign – to make a “clean break” with frustrating diplomacy and replacing it with an aggressive “regime change” approach across the region.

The plan to dump negotiations in favor of dumping adversarial leaders was outlined in a 1996 policy paper, entitled “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm” and prepared by prominent neocons, including Richard Perle and Douglas Feith, for Netanyahu’s campaign for prime minister.

In the document, the neocons wrote: “Israel can shape its strategic environment … by weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria. This effort can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq – an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right — as a means of foiling Syria’s regional ambitions.” [See’s “The Mysterious Why of the Iraq War.”]

The overriding point of this neocon strategy, as it has evolved over nearly two decades, is that by imposing “regime change” in Muslim nations that are deemed hostile to Israel, new friendly governments could be put in place, thus leaving Israel’s close-in enemies – Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon – without outside sponsors. Starved of money, these troublesome enemies would be forced to accept Israel’s terms. “The Realm” would be secured.

But that strategy always required a U.S. president who was either onboard or could be steered in the desired direction. Bill Clinton could only be pushed so far toward invading Iraq, but George W. Bush – eager to prove his mettle as a post-9/11 “war president” – went all in on the neocon strategy, starting by ousting Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Syria and Iran were always the neocons’ next targets, but the Iraq War went badly, leaving phase two and phase three on the drawing boards, not implemented but not forgotten.

When Barack Obama was elected president, Prime Minister Netanyahu chose to play hardball with the newcomer and achieved some success in pushing Obama around during the first term. But Netanyahu knew that Obama was a reluctant ally when it came to finishing the neocon plan. Obama resisted war with Iran and dragged his heels on intervening in Syria.

So, Netanyahu publicly threw his support behind Republican nominee Mitt Romney, who made it clear that he would align U.S. foreign policy with whatever Netanyahu wanted to do. However, Romney lost to Obama and Netanyahu had to revert to his old tactics of browbeating Obama and edging him toward the conflicts.

A major turning point came last summer when Obama was nearly stampeded into a military assault on Syria over a murky chemical weapons incident outside Damascus on Aug. 21. The Israelis, the neocons and many liberal interventionists (including some of Obama’s top aides) jumped to the conclusion that Assad’s regime was to blame for the attack. Obama weighed the possibility of a limited military reprisal.

But some U.S. intelligence analysts had serious doubts about who caused the deaths from sarin gas and they refused to sign on to an intelligence estimate that rushed to the Assad-did-it judgment. At the last minute, even as many White House aides expected U.S. missiles to start flying, Obama abruptly reversed course and began looking for a diplomatic way out. He was helped by the Russians who persuaded Assad to destroy his chemical arsenal even as he continued denying blame for the Aug. 21 attack.

That turnaround on attacking Syria was followed by an interim agreement with Iran to constrain its nuclear program — and now a plan for Syrian peace talks. Suddenly, it seemed like cooler heads might prevail. But Saudi Arabia, particularly its energetic intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and Israel, at least as personified by Prime Minister Netanyahu, won’t give up on their determination to shatter the Shiite Crescent.

Yet, it is becoming harder and harder to sell the American people on why they should spend billions and billions of dollars more and send more of their young men and women off to kill and be killed because of some Islamic sectarian struggle that dates back 1,400 years – or because some Israeli leaders want to continue a violent strategy of “regime change.”

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