The Wall Street Journal reports that U.S. intelligence agencies no longer assume that Assad will be overthrown. This is how some administration officials are reacting:
Though the White House says it still believes the Syrian leader must go, some senior administration officials now privately talk about Mr. Assad staying for the foreseeable future and voice regret about the decision, in August 2011, to call for him to step aside [bold mine-DL].
There are a few things to say about this. If the administration had no intention of backing up this statement about Assad with a policy that had a realistic chance of achieving the goal of removing him from power, it was an absolutely unnecessary and reckless thing for Obama to say. If Obama had backed up that statement with a more aggressive Syria policy, he would have been pursuing a dangerous and unwise policy. The administration was right to be reluctant and cautious about supporting any part of the opposition. To do otherwise would have been the worst sort of knee-jerk interventionism, which is exactly what Syria hawks were demanding from the administration. The administration’s more important mistake was in encouraging U.S. allies and clients to believe that the U.S. would eventually lend substantial aid to the opposition, since that created a gap between what they and the opposition expected and what the U.S. was prepared to deliver. Some officials now seem to recognize that this was a serious mistake:
Some administration officials say, in retrospect, the White House could either have been more supportive of the opposition or more up front about its reluctance to get more involved.
When the U.S. correctly provided little or no assistance, the disappointment of client governments and the opposition was much greater than it needed to be. It should have been possible to tell all parties early on that significant material support would not be forthcoming, because it made no sense for the U.S. to provide that support. I don’t know what Obama and his advisers thought they were doing by building up such unrealistic expectations of implied future U.S. support, but I suspect that when Obama first started saying that “Assad must go” he and other administration officials had been misled by developments in the Libyan war and earlier in Egypt into thinking that Assad’s downfall would be quick. When that didn’t happen, they were stuck with a series of ultimatums and demands that they had never had much desire to back up, which has produced the muddled and frustrating Syria policy that continues to please no one.