President Barack Obama seems resigned to the fact that arming rebels in Syria to take out the country's dictatorial leader isn't working, and will pass on the mess of U.S. intervention in Syria to his successor, according to a story in The Washington Post.
The U.S., led by the CIA, has been funding, training and arming rebels in the warn-torn country for three years with the aim of removing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power. American officials have also justified military intervention -- which includes a sustained bombing campaign and has contributed to the refugee crisis -- by saying the efforts also target Islamic State forces in the country.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin, while also claiming his country is fighting against ISIS, has been supporting al-Assad and has been conducting its own airstrikes and military operations aimed at keeping him in power.
The ravaged country has become a proxy war between the U.S. and Russia, as both powers look to preserve their influence in Syria and the wider Middle East.
Now the Post reports that the Obama administration has balked at a plan to provide more firepower to CIA-backed rebels in Syria. The proposal included providing weapons that would also give rebels the ability to defend themselves against Russian aircraft and artillery, the Post reported.
Obama "neither approved or rejected" the proposal, the newspaper said, which reflects Obama's skepticism that U.S. efforts in Syria are making headway.
Upping the ante and putting more powerful weapons in the hands of forces opposed to al-Assad could help people still living in the brutalized city of Aleppo fight back against daily bombardment, but it could also have dire consequences for the U.S. and stability in the wider Middle East.
Some administration officials are worried that if the weapons are used against the Russians, the U.S. could find itself in direct conflict with Moscow, according to the Post.
The identities of the rebels -- and their agendas -- also exacerbate the problem, a senior U.S. official told the Post. By arming forces opposed to al-Assad, the U.S. may be arming extremists and could create even more severe problems in the resulting power vacuum if the embattled Syrian president is deposed.
An increasing number of U.S. officials are worried that the effort could lead to a power vacuum like the one in Iraq that provided an opening for ISIS to consolidate power.
The CIA-back rebels are “not doing any better on the battlefield, they’re up against a more formidable adversary, and they’re increasingly dominated by extremists,” said the U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “What has this program become, and how will history record this effort?”
Others don't want to abandon the effort. They say the rebels, a loose coalition sometimes referred to as the Free Syrian Army, are the only way of pressuring al-Assad without committing the U.S. to more direct military involvement.
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton pushed for U.S. intervention in Syria in 2012, while she was Secretary of State, the Post noted. She publicly supported intervention at the time, and recent emails uncovered by WikiLeaks show Clinton was aware of the risks of getting involved in Syria and the resources needed to produce a favorable outcome for the U.S.
Clinton and then-CIA Director David Petraeus were the architects of the plan to arm rebels in the country, which had the effect of escalating the civil war already raging in the country and escalating the refugee crisis as millions of Syrians fled their homeland.
At the time, Clinton argued that American intervention would yield new allies for the U.S. and increase American influence if al-Assad was removed from power, according to a New York Times story that detailed her role in pushing for U.S. involvement. The story painted her as a primary agitator for intervening in Syria, and credited her for convincing Obama and top administration officials to push the U.S. agenda there.
Clinton has since backtracked on her support for intervention, distancing herself from the efforts she previously advocated. Asked about Syria during the third presidential debate, Clinton avoided talking about her own role and instead said she advocated diplomatic efforts to reach a ceasefire.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has not articulated a detailed position on Syrian intervention, except to say he believes the U.S. cannot save the war-ravaged city of Aleppo and should cut its losses and withdraw from the country.
In the meantime, the CIA and U.S.-backed forces continue pushing a vague U.S. strategy in Syria, the Post said.
“We continue to press for options that will decrease violence in Aleppo and alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people,” a senior administration official told the newspaper. “We and our partners will continue to provide support to the opposition and Syrian civil society in a manner that advances those objectives.”