'Obama at War' Shows How Syria Was Lost

U.S. President Barack Obama. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Leon Panetta, the former defense secretary and CIA chief, famously gibed in his 2014 memoir that President Obama "avoids the battle, complains, and misses opportunities." Alas, Panetta's withering judgment is more than borne out in an unsettling new PBS documentary that reveals how the White House dithered as Syria burned, creating a vacuum for the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS), the deaths of 220,000 Syrians, the desperate flight of hundreds of thousands of refugees into neighboring Jordan and Turkey, and eventually the collapse of the Iraqi army.

"Obama at War," premiering Tuesday night on PBS, is the latest first-rate program from the Boston-based WGBH-TV Frontline series, now in its 32nd year as America's top investigative documentary film producer. It is crisply written, reported and produced by veteran correspondent Martin Smith, who first examined the rise of Al-Qaeda in a Frontline documentary three years before the September 11, 2001, terror attacks and has revisited the subject several times since.

Al-Qaeda, once thought to be on the ropes, is at work in Syria, but only as a bit player compared with ISIS, whose fighters in recent days overran the historic Syrian crossroads city of Palmyra as well as Ramadi, a key city in Iraq's Sunni heartland. Now Washington is at its own crossroads, once again wringing its hands over getting more deeply involved in the swirling chaos or basically standing back and hoping all the bad actors in the drama will be consumed by fighting one another.

"When President Barack Obama took office in 2008, he had campaigned on ending the war in Iraq and keeping the U.S. out of new military conflicts," Smith intones. "But Obama now finds himself exactly where he didn't want to be: trying to defeat a brutal terrorist group in Iraq and Syria without dragging America into a prolonged regional conflict." Or, as Michael Corleone put it in Godfather III, "Just when I thought I was out...they pull me back in."

With his drones, warplanes and special ops troops, not to mention the world's most powerful weapons, Obama has Godfather-like options too. He can decide to obliterate some enemies and make peace with others, politics (and human rights) be damned. But in Frontline's telling, the president has been virtually paralyzed at each juncture of the crisis, dropping threats against the Iran-backed Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and unable to fully commit to so-called "moderate" groups battling it. Not that his choices have ever been simple.

"If Bashar al-Assad was to be toppled, who would replace him?" Smith asks Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, chairman of the Armed Services Committee. The former Vietnam-era pilot and prisoner of war, who has constantly called for airstrikes to create a safe haven for "our" Syrian rebels, has no answers. "I think that would be a very difficult thing to sort out," he says.

The White House is also having difficulty coping with the rapid advance of ISIS in Iraq. The administration was completely "surprised" by ISIS's takeover of Mosul last summer, General Martin Dempsey, the outgoing Joint Chiefs chairman, told Frontline. That was just one of "several things that surprised us about ISIL," he says. "The degree to which they were able to form their own coalition, both inside of Syria and inside of northwestern Iraq, the military capability that they exhibited, the collapse of the Iraq Security Forces. Yeah, in those initial days, there were a few surprises."

But Obama's agony is at least in part, if not wholly, self-created, according to key administration players interviewed by Smith. One of them is Robert Ford, the American ambassador to Damascus in January 2011, when tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands of Syrians took to the streets in protest against the brutal, corrupt Assad dictatorship. Since the U.S. had supported Arab Spring revolts in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the protesters had reason to expect Obama would be on their side too. When Ford showed up at one of the early demonstrations, "they came up to his car and were throwing flowers. They were throwing olive branches. They were excited," recalls Oubai Shahbandar, a Syrian-American who became a key adviser to the opposition. "The Americans were here. They were showing their solidarity."

In those relatively simple times, the White House banked on a broad-based popular revolt to bring down Assad, like they had Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Libya's Muammar el-Qaddafi. But Assad viciously counterattacked, eventually splintering the broad-based opposition along sectarian lines, with the unarmed, untrained "moderates" relegated to the sidelines. When Obama's famous "red line" warning to Bashar against using chemical weapons turned out to be evanescent, the opposition wilted. So did support from European allies, who had been lining up to help.

"Throughout the summer and fall of 2012, officials in the White House met as often as twice a week, trying to decide [whom]—if anyone—to back," Smith reports. The administration was deeply divided over what to do. A proposal from CIA Director David Petraeus to secretly arm "moderate" rebels from bases in Jordan drew support from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Panetta at the Pentagon. A State Department proposal for open aid was kicked around—again and again. Air attacks were readied. All ran into resistance from Obama's closest aides, like Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, who feared a "slippery slope" of direct military involvement in Syria. Weeks, then months, then years, went by. Each side battled it out. The White House discussions amounted to "sitting around, having an ongoing conversation that one aide described to us as Groundhog Day," Smith observes to former Obama national security official Derek Chollet.

"Yeah," Chollet says. That's the way the American system works. "When it comes to providing particularly lethal assistance, particularly to non-state actors, we need to find a way that we can do that within the bounds of our laws." But "the Saudis, the Qataris, the Kuwaitis, the Emirates…the Turks," Smith points out, "were all aiding other rebel groups," including ISIS (or ISIL, as it's also called). Without any help from the U.S., the Syrian "moderate" fighters drifted into the ranks of the burgeoning ISIS and other extremist groups.

"When you're in a civil war and the side that's fighting you is dropping barrel bombs, killing indiscriminately, when it is using chemical weapons, and then someone comes to you and says, 'We will help defend you against those people,' I think it's human nature to seek the help of those who will defend you against this external threat that's killing you, arresting you, torturing you," says Ford, who resigned in frustration over the administration's wavering in February 2014. "Is it really a surprise...that the Syrian opposition and the people that support them would seek the help of anybody to get rid of the regime that is inflicting this pain?"

Probably not. As for finding a "moderate" rebel group to back in Syria, that train has left the station, Ford tells Smith. "I worry now that we're too little and we're too late." To say the least. "You know, now they're talking about training 5,000 to 10,000 Syrians to fight against the Islamic State," Ford adds. Estimates of the number of ISIS fighters range wildly, from tens of thousands to over 200,000.

Meanwhile, Smith reports, "The administration's training program has been severely delayed. Only 90 rebels have taken part so far. And the Pentagon now says the first 5,000 rebels won't be vetted and ready until the end of this year at the earliest."

Well then, they should probably stay home. The fight against ISIS and Assad, and for the feckless Iraqis, may be "Obama's War," as Smith's Frontline piece calls it. But who's going to fight for him? By the time he decides on a suitable partner, that war may be over.

For the time and station for "Obama at War," check your local listings.

Correction: This article originally incorrectly referred to Will Lyman as the narrator of the Frontline segment. The narrator is Martin Smith.