On Saturday President Barack Obama told the American people, “I’ve made a second decision” on Syria. Having pledged a military strike against the Middle Eastern nation only days before in retaliation for an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack, the president said he had decided instead to seek authorization for military action from Congress. Actually, Saturday afternoon’s televised speech represented at least Obama’s third or fourth decision on Syria, and signifies one of the most melodramatic somersaults in U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Less than 18 months before the revolution in Syria began and Obama called for the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad, the White House was courting Assad strenuously. Obama campaigned in 2008 on a pledge to renew ties with Damascus—severed in 2005 after it became clear Assad had been involved in the assassination of Lebanon’s prime minister, Rafik Hariri. And Obama moved quickly in 2009 to do so.
Over that summer the president sent top diplomats to Damascus, and approved congressional trips to Syria for the first time in four years (one led by then-Sen. John Kerry). With high-level contact established, Obama named Robert Stephen Ford ambassador to Syria in 2010 —the first time in five years the post had been filled. Assad praised the choice and promptly invited Obama to Damascus. The U.S. Senate, though led by Democrats, refused to confirm the nomination, forcing the president to send Ford on a recess appointment. (Ford won Senate confirmation the following year.)
Normalized ties and White House hopes that Syria would serve a new role in the Middle East peace process, and with Iraq, soon soured. A call by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Assad, asking that he move away from his alliance with Iran and Hezbollah, backfired: Assad pointedly had himself photographed with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Damascus a few days later.
In 2011, as the streets of Damascus began to regularly fill with “Arab Spring” protesters, Ford annoyed the Assad government by meeting with members of the opposition. Courting the Assad regime, apparently, was over. The U.S. ambassador visited Hama as rebel fighters fought for control of the city in July 2011, and attended a funeral for a slain rebel leader. Reports circulated on Syrian state television that Ford was assisting in the arming and training of “death squads” that included outside fighters ready to take on the Assad regime. In September, as Ford arrived with an entourage to meet with opposition politician Hazzan Abdul Azim in Damascus, a pro-government mob of about 100 pelted him with tomatoes and stones.
The U.S. State Department pulled Ford in October 2011, citing threats to his safety. Last month a New York Times report citing unnamed officials said Secretary of State John Kerry had recommended Ford to be the next U.S. ambassador to Egypt.
Obama’s decision to defer to Congress on Syria delays possible military reaction to the use of chemical weapons by at least a week. In a speech one day before Obama’s, Kerry opened by saying the president “has spent many days now consulting with Congress,” and unnamed sources at the National Security Council told reporters—even though they met with the president on Friday afternoon—they had no idea he planned to call for congressional authorization.
A four-page declassified government report made public by Kerry “assesses with high confidence” that the Syrian government carried out a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs on Aug. 21. It found that 1,429 Syrians were killed in the attack, including more than 400 children. But other sources have cast doubt on intelligence Kerry insists is “more than mindful of the Iraq experience.”
The international relief group Doctors Without Borders, among others, said it has confirmed fewer deaths and has refused to confirm that chemical weapons originated with the Syrian government. Doctors and residents in Goutha, the Damascus suburb where the attack took place, said locals and rebels had been ordered to tote the gas cylinders in the days leading up to the attacks. Many of them believed the Saudis provided the weapons. In investigations into an earlier suspected chemical weapons attack, one confirmed by both U.S. and British analysts in April, a member of the UN inspection team said the panel had “strong, concrete suspicions” that rebels had launched the nerve agent.
Kerry widened the credibility gap in his Friday speech by referencing a photo used by the BBC of the attacks. But the BBC had already retracted the photo after learning it had been taken in Iraq in 2003. Doubts over U.S. intelligence could explain the abrupt dispatch to Congress by the president, where he is likely to receive resounding “no” votes.