Like the president he served, Ben Rhodes wanted to stop Bashar al-Assad from gassing little children. But it was complicated.
In an excerpt from his new book, The World As It Is, published in The Atlantic, Barack Obama’s former deputy national security adviser explains the decision-making that led Obama to choose against bombing Assad targets in late summer 2013. Among other issues, writes Rhodes, the White House didn’t know if it could trust the assessment coming from the American intelligence community claiming that Assad had used chemical weapons against his own people. U.S. spies got Iraq wrong. Obama was elected because he got Iraq right.
With that in mind, Obama told Rhodes that “it is too easy for a president to go to war.” Also, the White House could find no legal basis to strike Syria. The Europeans backed off at the last minute, and Senate Republicans like Marco Rubio, who talked a tough game, refused to vote for the authorization of military force.
Endowed with a tragic sense of life, Obama knew that in the end there was little he or anyone could do to stop the slaughter in Syria. As Rhodes writes: “I was also wrestling with my own creeping suspicion that Obama was right in his reluctance to intervene militarily in Syria. Maybe we couldn’t do much to direct events inside the Middle East; maybe U.S. military intervention in Syria would only make things worse.”
Obama himself has said that his decision not to bomb Assad was the moment that he broke with what he derisively called the “Washington playbook.”
“I’m very proud of this moment,” Obama told The Atlantic two years ago. “The fact that I was able to pull back from the immediate pressures and think through in my own mind what was in America’s interest,” said Obama, “was as tough a decision as I’ve made—and I believe ultimately it was the right decision to make.”
Instead of bombing Syrian regime targets, the White House struck an agreement with Assad’s patron, Russia, to rid him of his chemical weapons. That the arsenal was never entirely destroyed and Assad has continued to use it partly explains why the Rhodes piece downplays what former Secretary of State John Kerry once showcased as an example of Obama’s tough-minded diplomacy. Still, in Rhodes’ telling, the chemical weapons deal was as good as it was going to get. “The war would continue,” writes Rhodes. “Barack Obama would continue to keep the United States out of it.”
It’s true that Obama did not intervene against Assad, but that’s not the same as staying on the sidelines. In fact, Obama intervened massively—on behalf of Iran.
Rhodes’ book seems to be part of a larger effort, along with his appointment to the Holocaust Museum board, to shape how history will retroactively judge Obama’s Syria policy, which even Rhodes acknowledges was a subset of the administration’s Iran policy. “If we would have gone full-bore into Syria,” Rhodes explained in the recently released documentary, The Final Year, “we’d have no Iran agreement.”
As The Atlantic excerpt makes clear, Rhodes’ job is to whitewash the White House’s role in the most devastating humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century. And that was only part of the price that the administration paid for the nuclear deal with Iran. Had the United States moved against Assad, there would have been no deal. As journalist Jay Solomon explained in 2016: “Iranian officials told me that even had the diplomats doing the negotiations wanted to stay in talks, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps would have pulled the plug.”
Obama’s decision to leave Assad alone came at a pivotal moment during negotiations. A key date that Rhodes leaves out of his timeline was June 13, 2013, when the United States first acknowledged that Assad forces had used chemical weapons. The next day, Hassan Rouhani was elected president of Iran. Even though Iran did not prioritize the nuclear deal like Obama did, the White House saw the election of the so-called reformist candidate as an opening—Rouhani badly needed the money that only Obama could make available.
When Rouhani came to power, he found an economy in desperate shape. Sanctions had punished Iran but there were other factors, too. According to Solomon’s 2016 book The Iran Wars, Rouhani’s advisers found that “the government’s balance sheet had a black hole of more than $200 billion, much of the money assumed to have been lost to corruption.”
On top of that, the Iranian regime was at war. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was already based in Syria long before peaceful demonstrators took to the streets in March 2011 to protest against Assad’s depredations. By the time the opposition picked up arms months later, the Iranians dispatched the Quds Force, the IRGC’s expeditionary unit.
While the regime in Tehran has shipped to Syria tens of thousands of its allies from around the region—in Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, forming what Israeli scholar Shimon Shapira calls the Shiite International—the number of Iranian nationals deployed there has remained relatively low. Estimates vary between 2,500 and 5,000. Nonetheless, the high casualty rates for senior officers, including roughly a dozen brigadier generals, and most recently a commander from the IRGC Aerospace Force’s UAV unit, show that the war in defense of what one cleric had called Iran’s 35th province is a vital regime interest.
War is the most expensive of human enterprises, costing men, weapons, ammunition, food, transportation, and oil to move them all. Estimates are that Iran has spent between $6 billion and $15 billion annually on its Syria campaign.
“The only solution to Iran’s financial woes,” one of Rouhani’s financial advisers told Solomon, “was accessing the more than $100 billion of Iranian oil revenues frozen in overseas banking accounts because of the U.S. sanctions.”
Obama had the Iranians on the hook. If they wanted that money, they’d have to negotiate over the nuclear program.
In November 2013, two months after Obama refrained from attacking Syrian regime targets, the administration and its partners struck an interim deal with Iran, the Joint Plan of Action. That agreement stipulated that, starting in January, Iran would receive roughly $700 million in sanctions relief monthly until the two sides reached a permanent deal. From January 2014 to July 2015 when the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was struck, sanctions relief totaled more than $10 billion, enough to cover most or all of Iran’s war budget in Syria during that period.
When the Obama administration and its partners struck the JCPOA with Iran in July 2015, key sanctions on the energy and financial sectors were lifted. Senior Obama administration officials like John Kerry made like Tehran’s chamber of commerce and lobbied European industries to invest in Iran. In other words, Kerry encouraged Europe to join America in paying for Iran’s war.
Why didn’t Iran use the money it got from America to pay for new hospitals and schools and roads for its own people instead of murdering men, women, and children and reducing large cities in a foreign country to rubble? The simple answer is that a regime at war spends its money on war. Losing a war endangers the survival of the regime.
In the case of Syria, the strategic position of the Iranian regime depends entirely on its ability to project power on the border of a major American ally, Israel, through Hezbollah. The Assad regime is the supply line linking Iran to Hezbollah. Without Assad, Iran is a second-rate regional actor. Therefore, it had to fight for Assad, less to preserve the Syrian despot’s regime than to maintain the international status and bargaining power that Hezbollah has earned Iran, and which are essential to the regime’s standing among its own hardcore followers. For Iran, those strategic benefits that Hezbollah, through Assad, has earned are vital and irreplaceable—at least until the regime acquires a nuclear weapon.
The money that Obama sent to Iran was never going to benefit the Iranian people—and the administration knew it. Even Kerry admitted that sanctions relief would be spent on the war in Syria. “I think that some of it will end up in the hands of the IRGC or other entities, some of which are labeled terrorists,” said Kerry. “You know, to some degree, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that every component of that can be prevented.”
Fair enough. Except the administration did not even try to prevent it. Instead, it further emboldened Iran. In January 2016 the White House sent another $1.7 billion of U.S. taxpayer money in exchange for Americans held hostage by the regime. The deal was in cash, $400 million of which was shipped on wooden pallets, suggesting the money was intended for illicit purposes. The anti-regime demonstrations and strikes that started in the late fall of 2017 protesting the economic situation are further evidence of the priority that the Syrian war had on the regime’s resources.
Former Obama officials and its supporters continue to argue that the $1.7 billion and the hundreds of billions in frozen revenues that the Iranians received belonged to Iran anyway, and the United States had no choice but to release those funds. That argument is a questionable one. It also entirely abandons any moral consideration of what those funds would clearly be used for. After all, Iran was prosecuting a campaign of sectarian slaughter in Syria. Hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians had already been mowed down by Iran and its allies and hundreds of thousands more had been ethnically cleansed by the time the JCPOA was struck, in a genocidal campaign that was even more deadly and destructive than the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Why wouldn’t the United States cut off Iran’s cash flow to slow down or even stop the killing?
When Obama and his advisers and flacks warned America that the only alternative to their nuclear deal with Iran was war, no one bothered to ask how even the worst premonition of that war would look any different than the war that we were already funding in Syria.
In Rhodes’ telling, Obama made a tough but necessary decision in a hard world where Monday morning quarterbacks get all the easy choices. But Obama didn’t stay out of Syria. He backed Iran. Rhodes’ narrative is a cover story for those Americans who knew exactly what was happening and said nothing.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).