Obama more interested in reading text messages than hearing about Syria

A New York Times report which chronicles President Obama’s handling, or to be more exact, hands-off approach to the Syria crisis makes repeated references to his “body language” which appears to have been more expressive than his utterances: “he often appeared impatient or disengaged while listening to the debate, sometimes scrolling through messages on his BlackBerry or slouching and chewing gum.”

In addition, Obama’s position on Syria was reportedly being expressed by his chief of staff, Denis R. McDonough, who seems to have concluded that the indefinite continuation of the war would serve American interests.

[A] new American intelligence assessment at the beginning of 2013 revived the discussions about whether to give arms to the rebels.

In a reversal from what spy agencies had been telling administration officials for more than a year, the new assessment concluded that Mr. Assad’s government was in no danger of collapsing, and that Syrian troops were gaining the upper hand in the civil war. The pace of Syrian Army defections had slowed, and Iranian munitions shipments had replenished the stocks of army units that had once complained of shortages in arms and ammunition.

The opposite was true for the rebels, who were running out of ammunition and supplies. Morale was low, American spy agencies concluded, and Qaeda-linked groups like the Nusra Front were becoming increasingly dominant in the rebellion.

Besides the Syrian government’s gains, there was mounting evidence that Mr. Assad’s troops had repeatedly used chemical weapons against civilians.

Even as the debate about arming the rebels took on a new urgency, Mr. Obama rarely voiced strong opinions during senior staff meetings. But current and former officials said his body language was telling: he often appeared impatient or disengaged while listening to the debate, sometimes scrolling through messages on his BlackBerry or slouching and chewing gum.

In private conversations with aides, Mr. Obama described Syria as one of those hellish problems every president faces, where the risks are endless and all the options are bad. Those views would then be reflected in larger groups by Tom Donilon, the national security adviser, and Mr. McDonough.

“You could read the president’s position through Tom and Denis,” one former senior White House official said.

Slowly, however, Mr. Obama’s position began to change, in no small part because of intense lobbying by foreign officials. During a three-day trip to the Middle East in March, Mr. Obama met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, who warned him that the Assad government’s chemical weapons could fall into the hands of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

The pressure was even more intense the next day in Jordan, where Mr. Obama, Mr. Donilon and Mr. Kerry had a late-night dinner with King Abdullah II. Jordan was straining under the weight of more than 100,000 Syrian refugees, and the king urged Mr. Obama to take a more active role in trying to end the war.

Jordanian officials were even offering to allow the C.I.A. to use the country as a base for drone strikes in Syria — offers that the Obama administration repeatedly declined.

By April, senior officials said, one of the major skeptics, Mr. Donilon, had shifted in favor of arming the rebels. Another strong opponent in the fall, Ms. Rice, had also shifted her position, partly because of the alarming intelligence about the state of the rebellion.

Mr. McDonough, who had perhaps the closest ties to Mr. Obama, remained skeptical. He questioned how much it was in America’s interest to tamp down the violence in Syria. Accompanying a group of senior lawmakers on a day trip to the Guantánamo Bay naval base in early June, Mr. McDonough argued that the status quo in Syria could keep Iran pinned down for years. In later discussions, he also suggested that a fight in Syria between Hezbollah and Al Qaeda would work to America’s advantage, according to Congressional officials. [Continue reading…]

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