Former White House Sr Advisor: “The Cult of Credibility” Will Take Us “Further Up The Escalation Ladder in Syria”

by | Jun 20, 2017

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Colin Kahl: he was Deputy Assistant to the President and National Security Advisor to the Vice President from October 2014 to January 2017; image via Flickr

Russia will not back down, and neither will its Syrian and Iranian allies on the ground, says a former White House insider.

After the dramatic downing of a Syrian Air Force jet over Raqqa province by a US Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet on Monday, a former senior national security advisor to the Obama administration, Colin Kahl, warns that the Washington “cult of credibility” will lead the United States into “quagmire” and “further up the escalation ladder in Syria.”

Kahl’s statement on the incident, issued via Twitter, gives rare confirmation of a hawkish Washington national security culture which dangerously places credibility and political careerism over genuine US interests and defense.

As former Deputy Assistant to the President and National Security Advisor to the Vice President specializing in the Levant and Persian Gulf region, Kahl was directly involved in formulating Syria and regional policy in the Obama White House.

Here is Kahl’s statement as published through a Twitter thread [emphasis mine]:

The cult of credibility is as popular in DC as it is dangerous. Watch Syria. The risk of sliding into a big war is rising. For years, hawks have argued that Assad & Iran (& Russia after 2015) were essentially paper tigers in Syria. The Axis of Assad could be backed down & easily deterred if the US just showed some muscle. A few threats, strikes, no-fly zones. Voila! Obama was often criticized for being too cautious & concerned about escalation & quagmire risks in Syria. But consider Team Trump has now: Retaliated vs Assad for CW, Bombed Iranian-backed militia 3 times, Shot down an Iranian-made drone, Downed Syria jet. Yet the regime/Iran/Russia haven’t backed down. They keep pushing, probing, testing, countering. They haven’t been cowed & deterred. Why? Because the terrain they are fighting over, & the US coalition is now operating near, is very important to the Axis of Assad. The days of the ISIS campaign happening in strategically marginal parts of Syria are over. The two halves of the Syrian war are merging. The interests for the US are important; for the Axis of Assad they are vital–& for the regime, they are existential. The asymmetry of stakes means incremental escalation by US side isn’t enough. It just encourages the other side to get more assertive. So we down plane; Russ threatens our planes. We push toward areas in the east the regime covets; Iranian militia & missile strikes surge. That puts the onus back on the Trump administration to go further up the escalation ladder. If the other side doesn’t blink, will Trump de-escalate or get more aggressive? Hawks at the NSC will argue US credibility has now been engaged, so we have to keep punching. So we down more Syrian planes, kill more Iranian proxies & maybe some Hezbollah & IRGC commanders if we’re lucky. Iran retaliates against our exposed forces in Iraq while the Russians & regime play chicken with us near Raqqa. So we have to get tougher still. More retaliatory strikes (maybe into Iran this time!), more US assets & troops for “force protection.” That is the path to quagmire, a possible clash w/Russia & the war w/Iran some in Trump’s administration (& outside think tanks) want. Will cooler heads prevail in Trumpland or will the cult of credibility drag us deeper into the Syrian mess?

Kahl’s examination of the contours of escalation in Syria and the way tensions get incrementally pushed toward breaking point out of mere concern for political reputation (looking “tough”) within the beltway “cult of credibility” is clearly an accurate assessment, also confirmed by other insider accounts.

However, he forgets that the US already enmeshed itself in the Syrian quagmire (and was even a driving force of bloodshed and the further Balkanization of the country) when it took up sponsorship of the armed opposition very early in the conflict (through both political support and covert military aid), and this happened under Kahl’s boss, who as early as August 2011 declared Assad must go.

The covert program that began with weapons shipments ended with literal boots on the ground under Obama. Kahl conveniently forgets that the pieces were put in play under the administration he staffed.

The US was already very far up the “escalation ladder” the moment it invested itself to the point of having to defend its assets on the ground (whether US-backed fighters, logistical infrastructure, or special forces operating bases).

This is the Obama legacy in Syria inherited by Team Trump: the covert war which is increasingly going overt. Giving in to the hawkish “cult of credibility” is, unfortunately, a great American past time which crosses multiple administrations and largely defines the national security state, and finds encouragement in the media echo chamber.

About Brad Hoff

Brad is a native Texan and US Marine veteran who after leaving the military began wandering around the Middle East, eventually making Syria his second home. He's authored multiple stories for his blog Levant Report which gained international attention. Find his writing at, SOFREP, Foreign Policy Journal, The Canary (UK), and others.

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