The Obama Doctrine and America's Ability to Influence the World

Has the administration hit a brick wall on Syria?

President Barack Obama waits to speak at an interfaith vigil for the shooting victims from Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 16, 2012, in Newtown, Conn.
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America's ability to influence events abroad has come under question in recent years, during problematic withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan and an ill-defined stance toward the ongoing bloodbath in Syria, now well into its third year of civil war.

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The president has focused much of his foreign policy behind the populist movement to bring the country home from more than a decade of continuous war in the Middle East. Meanwhile, roughly 110,000 have died in Syria since fighting began in March 2011.

This further complicates decisions facing a commander-in-chief whose advisers suggest military action in the Levant.

Robert Kaplan, a policy adviser to the Department of Defense who previously advised President George W. Bush, says the U.S. has "hit a brick wall" in its policies toward Syria.

"U.S. power can do many things, but one thing it cannot do is to micromanage a transition in a populist, war-torn Islamist society on the ground," Kaplan, also an analyst at private intelligence firm Stratfor, told reporters last week. "The last thing President Obama wants is to be responsible for midwifing to power a Sunni jihadist regime."

Avoiding the brick wall Kaplan references falls to the National Security Council, a small group within a president's inner circle comprised of roughly two dozen top officials and their respective staffs. They have offered decades of experience to presidents at the intersection of combat, diplomacy and politics.

"One of the things you're trying to do in that situation is look around corners," says Elliott Abrams, who served as deputy national security advisor to President George W. Bush and assistant secretary of State for President Ronald Reagan. "It isn't just a matter of 'What are my options today?' But 'What will then happen? And what will my options look like six to 12 months down the road?'"

[READ: U.N. Releases 'Chilling' Report of Chemical Weapons in Syria]

The Obama administration failed to see the ongoing conflict in Syria as a proxy war with Iran, he says. Iran spends hundreds of millions of dollars per month in supplies and fighters to protect the Assad regime and its access to a border with Israel, the sea and other critical supply routes. The opposition now fighting Assad stands little chance of success if it doesn't get similar support.

Concern has also mounted in Congress and in the Pentagon over reports of a growing number of Islamic extremist fighters among the nationalist opposition in Syria.

Sandy Berger was President Bill Clinton's national security adviser from 1997 to 2001, and stresses the need for the council to see and advise on the whole situation, not just the immediate problem.

"If you could keep what happens in Syria in Syria, it is not strategically important to us," says Berger. The U.S. cannot, however, ignore the millions of refugees spilling over into allied countries such as Turkey and Jordan, nor the chance of igniting other civil wars in neighboring Lebanon or Iraq. Lebanese militant political party Hezbollah also continues its aggression aimed at Israel.

The largest issue is the conflicting influence in Syria of Saudi Arabia -- a key U.S. ally -- and Iran -- now in breakthrough diplomatic negotiations with the U.S., says Berger. Saudi Arabia, along with Qatar, has opposed the Assad regime during the ongoing conflict. A U.S. ally and frequent recipient of American military aid, the Saudis have actively armed the Syrian opposition.

"As long as Assad is there, there's going to continue to be a bloody, vicious civil war," he says. "The refugee flow is going to continue, the destabilization of the region is going to continue, the meltdown of the region is going to continue.

"For strategic reasons, that is a disaster for us and a disaster regionally."

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Obama has chalked up a win for his September threats of targeted military strikes in Syria, which he says brought the regime and its Russian backers to the negotiating table for the first time. The result included the U.N. Security Council's inaugural agreement on the Syrian conflict in the form of a highly ambitious mandate to dismantle Bashar Assad's chemical weapons stockpiles.