By autumn 2011, weeks after President Barack Obama demanded that Bashar Assad step aside and with the rebels making some modest gains on the battlefield, the question among the administration’s Syria watchers was: Thanksgiving or Christmas?
Apart from a couple of holdouts, the president’s entire foreign policy brain trust was convinced at the time that Assad would be out by the holiday season; there was only bickering about just how soon.
With the administration’s most trusted Middle East hands – diplomats, generals, intelligence officers – predicting that the Syrian leader wouldn’t last into 2012, the White House felt comfortable rolling out a tough-sounding talking point: “Assad’s days are numbered.”
The line was repeated by the president, senior cabinet members and government spokespeople not only through the end of 2011, but long after the world recognized that the Syrian leader wasn’t budging and turned to the United States to help remove him.
The problem was, the administration had banked on Assad’s departure without a backup plan, and the White House had made it clear from the beginning that it didn’t want to get deeply involved in Syria.
The “days are numbered” prediction became an unfunny punchline, endorsed as recently as last month by the new State Department spokesman, John Kirby.
The sun’s going to go supernova in 5 billion years, so clearly the earth’s days are numbered. It’s not really a relevant point.
Senior U.S. policymaker
“I don’t remember how that came about, but I do remember commenting, ‘That’s all well and good, but what is the number?’ ” said one former senior policymaker who worked on Syria for the first two years of the rebellion. “The sun’s going to go supernova in 5 billion years, so clearly the earth’s days are numbered. It’s not really a relevant point.”
Eight of the Obama administration’s top Syria policymakers agreed to discuss how the miscalculation came to shape the U.S. role in the Syrian conflict. Some spoke on the record. Others insisted on anonymity so as to discuss events freely.
The policymakers all recounted how, as they grasped for a face-saving response as the number of Assad’s days mounted, they tried a string of projects to hasten his ouster. All turned out to be deeply flawed.
The administration’s adherence to an obviously incorrect and outdated assumption now sounds almost farcical.
The Americans sought to build a cohesive, credible opposition body, but their goal of avoiding Islamist over-representation added so many disparate factions that the group never gelled. The Americans were determined to keep the United States out of an armed conflict in Syria, but turned a blind eye as Persian Gulf allies sent weapons to hardline factions with ties to al Qaida.
Eventually, U.S. policy allowed for nonlethal aid to the outgunned fighters, and, now, the Obama administration is building a U.S.-funded Syrian paramilitary to fight not Assad but the Islamic State, which Washington considers a more urgent threat. But that project, too, appears doomed, with just 60 graduates so far from a $500 million program intended to train 15,000.
Throughout all those efforts, the Obama administration has refused to retire the “days are numbered” talking point. The line has floated around the State Department for so long that it’s survived two secretaries and four spokespeople.
From time to time, reporters in Washington ask about it at the daily briefing – Matt Lee of The Associated Press once did the math and brought it up on Day 706 – but the administration appears unable to acknowledge that its plan for Syria hinged on a miscalculation about Assad’s staying power.
The administration’s adherence to an obviously incorrect and outdated assumption now sounds almost farcical, drawing smirks at times even from the government spokespeople who have to repeat it.
There was a default view on the part of some that Assad isn’t even as impressive as some of these other people, so why would he survive if the others went down so rapidly?
Frederick Hof, Atlantic Council
On July 16, new spokesman Kirby, in the job two months at that point, tried to skirt the question when asked whether the Assad’s-days-are-numbered talking point was still in use. “The short answer to your question is, yes,” he said.
The former policymakers say that, in hindsight, there was little reason to believe that Assad would depart without a fight. They said the assessments were off because of a combination of factors: a lack of experts with insight into the complex pariah state of Syria, a failure to foresee that Iran and its proxies would bail out Assad, and ill-conceived optimism from an unprecedented wave of rebellions that had quickly toppled other Arab autocrats.
That last point was the one most often cited by the policymakers. The simultaneous uprisings against Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and Moammar Gadhafi in Libya challenged U.S. intelligence assessments of what had been considered stable, predictable authoritarian states. U.S. intelligence analysts and Middle East-focused diplomats were caught off guard and had insufficient human intelligence to evaluate the situation on the ground, they said.
The U.S. official with arguably the most experience in the region, Ryan Crocker, wasn’t consulted. ‘I was trying to get Afghanistan right,’ he says now.
After policymakers in Washington saw the seemingly intractable Mubarak dislodged in just 18 days of protests, it no longer seemed inconceivable that Syrians could overthrow the Assad dynasty.
“There was a default view on the part of some that Assad isn’t even as impressive as some of these other people, so why would he survive if the others went down so rapidly?” recalled Frederic Hof, who led the State Department’s response to the Syrian uprising and is now with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.
Hof agreed that virtually no one in the decision-making circles believed that Assad could ever restore status-quo regime rule, though he said that he and a few others at State warned that “Assad had the resources to stretch this out considerably and we were not seeing forces inside Syria capable of ejecting him anytime soon.”
Hof and another key policy architect, Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, both said that they believed that the regime wouldn’t have survived this long without Iran and its ally Hezbollah in Lebanon charging in with reinforcements. Russia and Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim militias in Iraq also helped Assad’s war effort.
In other words, the pro-Assad side was “all in,” as Hof put it. The rebel side, however, was in disarray: riven with internal divisions, faced with a metastasizing extremist problem, and hobbled by the lack of credible Syrian leadership and reliable Western backing.
“I said, in a war of attrition, eventually he’ll lose. I still hold to that, by the way,” Ford said of Assad. “But it’s taking a long time because the Iranians are helping him.”
One senior Syria expert who was part of the Obama administration at the time said that he never believed Assad’s days were numbered.
Ryan Crocker, a career ambassador and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, served as ambassador to Syria from 1998 to 2001 and held the same post in two neighboring countries: Lebanon from 1990 to 1993 and wartime Iraq from 2007 to 2009. He’s held posts in a slew of other Muslim capitals and, after the 9/11 attacks, was among the diplomats involved in secret talks with Iran on cooperation against al Qaida and the Taliban.
Reporters at the State Department often asked about the talking point. One did so by noting 706 days had passed.
Crocker recalled that his first reaction to Obama’s call for Assad to step aside was “uh-oh.”
Interviewed by phone from Texas, where he’s now dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, Crocker launched into a detailed, scholarly argument about why U.S. officials should’ve expected the regime to stand its ground.
His perspective comes from close study of Assad’s father, the notorious Hafez al Assad, whose own bloody crackdown on Islamists in 1982 “shaped the dimensions of a fight three decades later, both in terms of the radicalization of the opposition and the tenacity of the regime.” Crocker’s views on Syria also draw from his experience with sectarian civil wars in Lebanon and Iraq, and with jihadist insurgencies in the Middle East and Central Asia.
However, the insights Crocker gleaned from decades of working in and around Syria were largely missing from the administration’s early brainstorming about the conflict. That’s because he was in Kabul as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, itself an all-consuming and risky post. Nobody really asked him about Syria, he said, and he didn’t offer his opinions because “it wasn’t my lane. I was trying to get Afghanistan right.”
Crocker said he knew of State Department colleagues who also were wary of promising that Assad’s days were numbered. But such skepticism simply wasn’t popular at the time among officials who were fired up about the Arab Spring protests and who “just did not understand” that Syria was not Egypt or Libya, he said.
They might not say it publicly, Crocker and other former policymakers said, but the administration’s foreign policy strategists know the “days are numbered” phrase is hollow. The regime is weakened but doesn’t appear on the verge of collapse, they said, and to a number of analysts even seems preferable now, given the likelihood of extremist gains should Assad’s regime fall.
“The White House came to figure it out: Assad’s not going,” Crocker said. “It’s not Mubarak. It’s not Ben Ali. It’s not Gadhafi. They’re fighting for their lives and they’re ready for the fight.”