Did Obama Administration Leaks Already Spoil the Syria Attack?

Former top officers are baffled by Washington's telegraphing of its strike on Assad.

U.S. airstrikes into Syria will begin within days and involve Tomahawk cruise missiles fired by American warships in the eastern Mediterranean. They will last less than a week and target a limited number of Syrian military installations.  And they will be designed to send a stern message to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, not force him from power.

That's the word coming from some in the Obama administration -- the White House swears it's not them. And while Obama's aides publicly insist that the President hasn't made a final decision about whether to attack Syria, anonymous officials within his administration are leaking a strikingly large amount of detailed information about the timing, duration and scope of the potential military intervention. The flood of details raises a pair of related questions. Is the administration deliberately trying to telegraph its plans for a strike? And if so, why?

"I have no earthly idea why they're talking so much," said retired Admiral William Fallon, the former head of the military's Central Command. "It's not leaking out; it's coming out through a hose. It's just a complete head-scratcher."

David Deptula, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who commanded the no-fly zone over Iraq in the late 1990s, said that military action was most effective when a U.S. foe like Assad didn't have a clear sense of the timing and severity of a potential strike and couldn't take protective measures in advance like dispersing his troops or weapons so they'd be harder to find and destroy. The administration's public and private comments, he said, meant that Assad would have an easier time figuring out when and how to prepare for a U.S. assault. 

"You don't want an adversary to know what's coming," Deptula said. "Now Assad does."

In recent days, White House spokesman Jay Carney has said that the military operations under consideration by President Obama "are not about regime change," while The New York Times and other newspapers reported that the White House was considering a limited series of strikes that would last one to two days and strike fewer than 50 targets. The paper said the U.S. would focus on hitting individual Syrian military units, headquarters compounds, air bases, and rocket sites, not chemical weapons facilities themselves. The information was attributed to unnamed administration officials. 

There were signs Wednesday that the Syrian strongman has already begun reacting to the talk coming out of Washington about the potential targets of a U.S. strike. Reuters reported that Assad's forces appeared to have evacuated most of their personnel from several key army, air force, and security headquarters buildings in central Damascus. Those are precisely the kinds of military compounds U.S. cruise missiles would reportedly be sent to destroy.   

The administration's willingness to share details about sensitive military operations has prompted internal consternation in the past. In the days after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates grew so angry about the amount of information leaking out about the assault that he reportedly approached then-National Security Advisor Tom Donilon to recommend "a new strategic communications approach." It was a simple one. "Shut the f--- up," Gates said.

Many of the administration's highest-profile leaks have concerned operations that had already been successfully carried out, like the bin Laden raid or the U.S. role in creating the Stuxnet computer virus that temporarily slowed Iran's nuclear program. The current situation is arguably riskier for the U.S. because the information being leaked concerns an operation that has yet to take place. 

A White House official -- also speaking, ironically, under the condition of anonymity -- denied that the administration had been responsible for publicizing specifics about potential U.S. targets and insisted that it opposed the release of the information.    

"The kinds of details you're talking about are not coming out with the approval of the White House," the official said. "I don't know who is talking about these things, but we want it to stop. Our intention is not to talk about the details of military operations the president has not decided upon."

The official also defended the administration's preemptive declaration that a U.S. strike wouldn't be designed to drive Assad from power. "Regime change is not U.S. policy in Syria," the official said. "We've made clear for many months that we think there is no military solution to the crisis in Syria and that a political solution is needed."

That message is hard to reconcile with the administration's tough talk about Assad. White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday that Assad "has long since forsaken any legitimacy that he might have to lead" and stressed that Syria's future "must be one that is without Assad in power." President Obama himself has been calling for Assad to step aside for more than a year.   

Deptula said that he didn't know why the administration would call for Assad's ouster -- while simultaneously insisting that it wasn't going to try to use force to bring that ouster about.

"There are these trial balloons being floated about the strikes being limited and not about regime change," he said. "Well, wait a second. Didn't the president say Assad has got to go? How do you square that?"

The administration may have good reasons for trying to tread so narrow a line. Allies like Saudi Arabia have been privately pressing the administration to oust Assad for months, but the prospect of an American military intervention is so politically toxic throughout the region that Riyadh has pointedly refused to publicly endorse a U.S. strike. The Arab League has taken a similar position, and the administration could be trying to maintain support for a military intervention by making clear that it would be limited in both scope and duration. That message could also play well at home, where an overwhelming majority of the American public opposes U.S. involvement in Syria's civil war.

The approach also carries clear risks, however, most notably that Assad will interpret a small-scale American strike as a sign that he can continue to wage a brutal campaign against his own people without risking a Western attempt to force him from power.  

"I'm not a big fan of the belief that you can send a message and have that be enough," Deptula said. "The leadership of Syria is responsible for this brand of armed conflict, and the leadership needs to feel like they're paying a price.  If they don't, you won't see a change in behavior."

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images


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