How Assad United the Middle East … Against Him

Weeks ago, the U.S. was at odds with Israel and Saudi Arabia. Not anymore.

CAIRO - In Syria, to steal a Beatles' lyric, the United States is getting by with a little help from its friends. Key U.S. allies in the Middle East -- notably Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia -- are lining up in support of a military strike against President Bashar al-Assad's regime. Just how much help they'll be willing to provide, however, remains to be seen.

The closing of ranks over Syria is a stark reversal from a few weeks ago, when Washington was at odds with Jerusalem and Riyadh over the crisis in Cairo. Back then, President Barack Obama's administration condemned Egypt's new military-backed government after it launched a bloody crackdown on Islamist protesters, resulting in the deaths of at least 900 people, but found itself with little leverage over Egypt's generals as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates provided generous aid packages to Egypt in order to offset any potential cuts in U.S. assistance.

With some other regional players expressing support for a military intervention in Syria, however, Washington seems to have rediscovered its sense of purpose in the Middle East. Secretary of State John Kerry laid the foundations for a U.S. military strike a mere five days after an alleged chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime, saying that Obama "believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world's most heinous weapons against the world's most vulnerable people."

The administration's case for military action against Assad is being bolstered by help from Israel, which provided intelligence that was reportedly vital to the United States in its quick determination that the Syrian regime launched the chemical weapons attack in the eastern Damascus suburbs. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been equally adamant that this attack cannot go unanswered: He said that the use of chemical weapons "must not continue," and linked the struggle against the Assad regime with Israel's long-running cold war against Iran. "Assad's regime has become a full Iranian client and Syria has become Iran's testing ground," he said. "Iran is watching and it wants to see what would be the reaction on the use of chemical weapons."

Other Israeli analysts and officials also worry about the repercussions of Obama failing to defend the "red line" that he set against chemical weapons use last year. "[Israelis] are worried about the erosion of the influence and the impact of the U.S., because they believe that if that happens it's bad for Israel," said Michael Herzog, a retired brigadier general in the Israel Defense Forces who specializes in strategic planning.

Israeli analysts doubt, however, that the United States is preparing to intervene decisively to end the Syrian civil war. Rather, they expect a strike intended to hurt Assad enough to deter him from using chemical weapons in the future, not one designed to drive him from power. "It will be something more than the missiles fired by President Clinton into Sudan over ten years ago," said Israeli commentator Ehud Yaari, referring to the 1998 cruise missile attack on a suspected al Qaeda site. "But [it will be] far less than the American air force in the skies of Syria, like in Yugoslavia."

Many in the Israeli security establishment remain deeply ambivalent about the outcome in Syria -- while they remain hostile to Assad, they are also deeply concerned about the prospect of Islamist radicals taking power in Syria. An array of senior Israeli military officials said in recent interviews that they believed moderate members of the loose-knit rebel alliance had lost ground to al-Qaeda affiliates like Jabhat al-Nusra. Israel has begun building a high-tech fence along its border with Syria -- long the country's quietest -- to prevent jihadists from crossing into Israel to carry out terror attacks.

Many in the White House and Pentagon share such fears about Syria's post-Assad future, which helps to explain the delicate line the administration is trying to tread. On the one hand, the White House wants the strikes to force Assad to think twice about using chemical weapons again. On the other, it doesn't want to drive Assad out of power or hit him hard enough that he retaliates against American, Israeli, or Gulf targets -- potentially dragging Washington into a larger conflict.

It's not just the Israelis who are pressing for military action against the Syrian regime -- Turkey is also fed up with the seeming futility of international diplomatic action. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said yesterday that Ankara would join an international coalition against Assad even if it was not authorized by the U.N. Security Council.

"We have been waiting for more than two and a half years now for the U.N. Security Council to act," said a Turkish diplomat. "All the red lines have already been crossed -- over 100,000 people have died, millions of people are displaced.... [T]his last chemical attack was the last straw that made it obvious to us that the international community can no longer afford to wait."

The Security Council has been paralyzed on Syria since the beginning of the conflict, as Russia and China have vetoed any resolutions targeting Assad. For the Turkish government, enough is enough. "From now on, a failure of the Security Council to act will no longer provide a shield for the Assad regime," the diplomat said. "After this recent chemical attack, we find ourselves in a different place -- the international community's conscience has been shocked."

To be sure, it's far from clear that Turkey's tough talk will amount to concrete action. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been calling for Assad's ouster for nearly two years -- but hasn't mounted any strikes into Syria. Turkey's primary military response to the chaos in Syria has been to open its territory to the flow of weapons and goods to the rebels in northern Syria, and to ask the United States to deploy Patriot missile defense systems along the Turkish-Syrian border for use against a potential Syrian strike into Turkish territory.

The final partner in this troika is Saudi Arabia, a veteran of the anti-Assad cause -- but one that has not always used its clout effectively. A recent Wall Street Journal article detailed how Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan has revived the kingdom's anti-Assad effort, which includes a clandestine joint operations center in Jordan, run with the CIA, that trains moderate Syrian rebels in the hopes they will one day be able to capture Damascus. According to Sen. John McCain, he saw "a dramatic increase in Saudi involvement, hands-on, by Bandar."

The members of this anti-Assad coalition are not only bound together by their hatred of the Syrian regime -- and moral outrage over its use of chemical weapons -- but also their mutual antagonism toward its most important ally, Iran. Support from the Islamic Republic and its Lebanese client, Hezbollah, have helped Assad regain the initiative against the rebels in recent months. But it has also led Iran's enemies to increasingly see Syria as the theater for a proxy war against its regional influence.

"I'll be very blunt: An Iranian victory in Syria is a major strategic catastrophe from the point of view of Israel, and I think from a Western point of view generally," said Yaari. "In spite of the fact we have our doubts about the nature of the future regime in Syria, Israel's attitude is that the devil we don't know is preferable to the devil we know."

Spencer Platt/Getty Images


Two's a Crowd at the Pentagon

Is the Defense Department big enough for Chuck Hagel and his deputy?

Editor's note: Less than two months after this story on tensions between the Pentagon's top two officials first ran, Deputy Defense Secretary and Pentagon heir apparent Ash Carter abruptly resigned.

For Ash Carter, it was a commanding performance. With a view of the Rocky Mountains in the airy conference center of the Aspen Security Forum last month, the deputy secretary of defense astutely addressed some of the thorniest issues confronting the Pentagon: the budget, cyberwarfare and something the trained physicist knows well -- nuclear weapons. There was just one thing missing: Carter seemed to forget who he was.

To some in the audience, it seemed like Carter, the Pentagon's Number Two, was talking as if he didn't know where exactly he was positioned on the Defense Department's org chart. And he never once mentioned his boss, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel -- the man with whom he had just competed for the job of Pentagon chief. 

To a question about a new initiative to create cyber security teams, Carter spoke with such authority that it took some people aback: "We're starting this way, because I want to start fast," he said. And a bit later, on the sequester, he spoke again as if he was the man in charge. "I did not take action until it became clear that the budget deal collapsed at the end of the year, and that is because the things that we do under sequester are harmful," he said, adding, "I wasn't going to do anything harmful to our defense."

While few outsiders would notice anything askew about what Carter said that day, to some there, Carter came off not as a man comfortable in his role as the Pentagon's deputy, but as someone openly auditioning for the top slot. One friend who was there said that that was Carter just being Carter: prepared, smart and candid. But to some back in Washington, it reflected unchecked ambition. Carter, said one senior defense official privately but who was reflecting the growing sentiment, needed to be more careful.

People close to Carter in the Pentagon insist that the deputy wasn't overreaching, and that his remarks were intended to be more personal. But combine it with other signals -- like a trip this spring to Asia that Carter planned, but neglected to tell Hagel's front office about until the last minute -- and the remarks in Aspen may have been a pivotal moment. Hagel, still trying to prove himself as secretary after his bruising confirmation battle this winter, has begun to hit his stride as the department goes through a fundamental transition after 12 years of war and blank checks.

Now Hagel has begun, gently, to recalibrate Carter's role to reflect the fact that Hagel is looking to be a more "hands-on" secretary. And while Hagel isn't limiting Carter's mission, he is in the middle of changing the dynamic in the E-Ring for his #2 to focus on the budget battles at home -- freeing Hagel up to manage the conflicts overseas. But Hagel must tread carefully. Carter is uniquely qualified in the deputy slot. And he has the president's backing.

"There is a sense of major budgetary uncertainty, and that the deputy needs to be a hands-on manager," said one senior defense official speaking, as many others did, on background because of the sensitivity of the matter. "Ash Carter is not driving policy for the department... Hagel views that as his purview."

To his supporters, Hagel is developing a knack as secretary as a stickler for details, a man who wants to absorb as much information as possible and become the best defense executive that he can be. Hagel is seen as the closer on a major arms deal with Israel and two Arab countries worth $10 billion that will give the U.S. a leg up in the Middle East. And while Hagel's more than 15 calls to Egyptian leader Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi have not persuaded the Egyptians to relent in their crackdown of dissidents there, Hagel's fans say that his engagement on the issue has been substantive and thoughtful.

Still, by all accounts, the secretary must rely heavily on his second-in-command, Carter, whose intellect, experience and knowledge are undisputed on an array of matters. But that also may mean there needs to be a better definition of roles and missions.

Carter was widely credited with running the Pentagon before Hagel arrived as the Pentagon's deputy under then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Carter was thought to have free rein to manage the Pentagon as Panetta, known as a hands-off leader, oversaw bigger issues and worked with Capitol Hill on the budget battles. But Hagel has a different style. One other senior official in the Pentagon described Hagel's approach as one in which he delegates but wants a back-and-forth from underlings as an issue is hammered out; Panetta, however, delegated but wanted a "fully-baked cake" handed to him on the back end.

The dynamic between Hagel and Carter is at best a work in progress, although they have known each other professionally for some time. But Carter will now have to cater to a new type of demand.

It's something he'll do well, say Carter's many fans inside and outside the Pentagon. Jeremy Bash, Panetta's former chief of staff, predicted that Carter would one day be the defense secretary, even if not, perhaps, during Obama's second term. "The reality is that he is so skilled and so smart and so experienced, that any secretary would want him to play a big role, an alter-ego role, and that's entirely appropriate," Bash said of Carter. "Ash is the go-to guy, and he has earned that place because he has a once-in-a-generation combination of skills, intellect and experience that make him the most valuable and valued defense professional today."

Carter, a Yale graduate and Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, is generally thought to be the biggest brain in most rooms. But even those who admire him have sensed a certain insecurity about playing second fiddle when he so clearly wants to be the Pentagon's lead player. Still, he is widely respected for being steeped into the driest details of Pentagon policy, programs and budgets -- all skills Hagel needs as he manages the department's transition. "It's very much a kind of [chief executive officer-chief operating officer] kind of relationship," said another senior defense official, "where you won't have two folks in the same place simply because of the mounting set of uncertainties and challenges before us."

Another senior defense official who is close to the matter said that under Hagel, Carter has attended high-level "principals meetings" at the White House, get-togethers that are ordinarily reserved for cabinet-level officials. Carter's place at the meetings is a sign of the trust Hagel has in him; it's something he didn't do under Panetta. Carter also briefed Vice President Joe Biden on an important classified issue, the defense official said, noting the trust Hagel places in Carter; Carter will also play a prominent role in the pivoting of forces and military attention to Asia.

"The role is not necessarily diminished," said that official, "it may be different because Hagel and Panetta have different styles, but Ash is still being asked to do some of the most important work for the Department and the Secretary."

And although a recent "Strategic Choices and Management Review" was Hagel's initiative, it was Carter, who along with the building's number two in uniform, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. James A. "Sandy" Winnefeld, who led that analysis of the Pentagon's top priorities. So comfortable was Carter with the details of the review that Carter, not Hagel, briefed its results on Capitol Hill.

Informed by the Pentagon of this story, a steady stream of senior military officers and defense officials provided Foreign Policy with unsolicited input about the value Carter brings to the Defense Department's leadership. The statements and calls came from luminaries of the security establishment such as former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Marty Dempsey, and former Congresswoman Jane Harman. All of them expressed their extremely, deeply, profoundly positive views about this "most talented" (Panetta) "universally respected" (Dempsey) man with an "intellect, leadership, and ability to get things done" (Harman).

Another was Winnefeld, who volunteered his analysis of the different leadership styles of Panetta and Hagel -- and how Carter figured into both. "Panetta's style was that of big Italian family... Hagel's style is that of an independent Midwesterner," Winnefeld wrote in an e-mail. For both men, Carter has been "an extremely good partner, incredibly hard working, collegial, inclusive and stunningly effective."

"Not only has Ash taken on the traditional Deputy Secretary role of running the Department," Winnefeld added, "he's been a tireless advocate for properly equipping our troops in Afghanistan, for our wounded, ill and injured warriors, and for the Department's support for veterans, as well as taking on some of the higher level strategic issues confronting a very challenging policy environment."

And in a statement to FP, Hagel said that Carter is a "trusted, experienced and respected leader" and that he relies upon Carter to help him make decisions on national security, the well-being of the military, and on a number of internal matters. "The American people are fortunate to have him as one of their most senior public servants," according to the statement from Hagel.

Indeed, the notice that Carter elicited by his remarks in Aspen in July may be a residual from the role he played under Panetta, who directed Carter to run the department so he could focus on larger matters. Traditionally, there's a different division of labor between the defense secretary and his deputy. The secretary focuses outwardly -- guiding the military strategically, doing most of the international travel, briefing the commander in chief, and being the face of the Pentagon. The deputy is supposed to handle the day-to-day operations, managing programs, budgets, keeping inter-service rivalries at a dull roar and ensuring the trains run on time.

Those roles have been upended in recent years. Bill Lynn, the deputy under Defense Secretary Robert Gates, was considered ineffective for a variety of reasons. Among them: that Gates's special assistant Robert Rangel functionally usurped the deputy's job, taking a strong hand guiding the Pentagon's day-to-day doings. That left Lynn largely out of the loop -- and frustrated. When Panetta arrived, he was happy to allow Carter to assume that role of managing the building. But now, as Hagel seeks to establish himself as an effective secretary, there is change once again. While Carter will maintain much of his portfolio, his travel will likely be more limited and his focus will be shifted to inside the Pentagon. But as military types like to say, it ain't soup just yet -- the relationship is still being formed.

"There is a certain degree of structural shift," said Shawn Brimley, a former director of strategic planning on the National Security Council and a former advisor to the Pentagon's policy planning staff. As the wars end and the Pentagon's focus turns inward, both the secretary and the deputy secretary are by definition focused on many of the same things. "Now you have the Secretary and the Deputy focused internally, certainly in ways that are abnormal in terms of the last 13 years."

Carter was on the very short list to be defense secretary. He was considered, along with Hagel and former Pentagon policy chief Michèle Flournoy. Both Carter's and Flournoy's credentials and bona fides as leaders of the Pentagon were clear. But President Barack Obama went in a different direction. When the president made his choice, one former defense official said, he told Carter that he was picking between a manager and a presider. And the president said he wanted a presider, according to this official, and so gave the nod to Hagel. Obama also was looking for more of a household name, and while Carter's credentials were unsurpassed, Hagel was better known.

After Hagel was tapped and prevailed during the nasty confirmation battle, it was clear that Hagel would want his own people around him. He soon chose Mark Lippert, who had broad experience at the White House and on Capitol Hill, as his chief of staff. Recently Hagel announced that he would ask Army Maj. Gen. Robert "Abe" Abrams to be his senior military assistant, replacing Marine Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, who had worked for Panetta. But Hagel was given the job under at least one condition: he would keep Ash Carter on. "The President had asked [Carter] to stay, [replacing Carter] wasn't going to happen," said one former official.

Under Panetta, Carter's portfolio included building and maintaining international partners, and Hagel has both supported and encouraged that, senior defense officials said.

Also under Panetta, Carter ran a so-called "Senior Integration Group," which assessed the needs of the commanders in Afghanistan and helped to coordinate missions with NATO partners. He will continue that under Hagel. Carter has also been particularly focused on the relationship between the U.S. and India after Panetta asked him to help drive that relationship to a new level. "Hagel is very supportive of that," said one senior defense official. Iraq is another example, defense officials said, where Carter has been instrumental in working through the "difficulties with our partner, [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki]" to smooth the way for foreign military sales.

But now that his boss, Hagel, is getting more comfortable on the job, it's clear that Carter is being asked to adapt. It won't be hard for him, his supporters contend.

"One of the great things that the Secretary relies on Ash for is his nimble thinking," another senior defense official said. "He is a rocket scientist after all."

Reuters/Jonathan Ernst