The Sunday Times

By Toby Harnden

CIA operatives dealing with Syrian rebels have said they are "embarrassed" to talk to those fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad's regime because of the repeated failure of the United States to arm the opposition.

In a policy that has become emblematic of what critics view as President Barack Obama's increasing disengagement from the world, the White House has avoided engaging decisively with the rebels for two years.

A senior US intelligence official said: "A year and a half ago, we could have armed the rebels and exerted some control and influence of the situation. Now, with al-Nusra [Islamist rebels] gaining in strength, every option we face is horrible.

"There are CIA guys who have been meeting the rebels for the past two years. The rebels leave the fight for the meeting and say, 'We need weapons.' Our guys say, 'We know. We want to give them to you but we can't; not yet.' It's gone on so long our guys are embarrassed even to call the meetings."

Last week Chuck Hagel, Obama's new Pentagon chief, gave a speech in which he said that the United States must understand "our limitations" in the Middle East, a place where "political, not military" solutions were most effective. While Hagel insisted that "the full range of tools" would be used by the US, the speech underscored Obama's deep reluctance to use American forces after a dozen years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The reluctance is shared by elements in the higher echelons of the US military.

Admiral James Stavridis, who is about to retire as Nato's supreme allied commander Europe, told The Atlantic magazine that his time as head of US southern command, which included Central and South America, had underlined that "a great deal of condescension, military activity and invasion" from the US in Latin America had not worked.

"So we did things like send hospital ships full of military doctors and volunteers. We would send baseball teams down there... that crystallised for me that inter-agency, international, private-public approach."

On Syria, he suggests that a UN resolution should be a prerequisite for any American military action, stating that differences with Russia and China made this a distant prospect but "there is nothing we can do until a political decision is made".

An article billed on the cover of The American Interest magazine as "The Invisible Superpower", written by Owen Harries and Tom Switzer, compares Obama's foreign policy to that of President Bill Clinton in the early 1990s.

Peter Tarnoff, a State Department adviser, provoked controversy at the time by arguing that in the Balkans "we simply don't have the leverage, we don't have the influence, we don't have the inclination to use military force".

This was an earlier incarnation, the authors argue, of Obama's foreign policy, described by an anonymous adviser talking about Libya two years ago as "leading from behind".

They write: "Simply put, the American public has tired of the world. It is suffering from foreign policy fatigue... there is an overwhelming feeling that it is high time for the nation to concentrate on its own neglected internal problems."

Both liberal internationalists and conservative hawks fear Obama's reticence will lead to a loss of American influence, an even greater humanitarian catastrophe in Syria and expanding Islamist influence in the Middle East.

Bill Keller, a former New York Times executive editor, argued in a column last week that the Iraq experience had led to excessive caution. Congressman Mike Pompeo, a Republican member of the House committee on intelligence, said the Obama administration had "acted internationally only in response to crises and challenges which in many cases a positive American influence could have stopped happening in the first place". America had become "incredibly passive", a stance that would have a profound influence on how the country was regarded by allies and adversaries alike. "If you're Israel, Jordan or Turkey, the knock-on effects are critical. Everyone's watching how America behaves."

The CIA, he said, was made up of "professionals who know Syria and know the participants well" and who "would love to have the capacity to be able to lend that expertise" to the rebels fighting Assad.

"No one's suggesting the 82nd Airborne or two heavy divisions. But there's so many things between that and doing nothing. We are over-emphasising the risks of engagement and grossly underestimating the risks of being disconnected."

The US, he added, risked having "nil" influence in a post-Assad Syria. "If you're not prepared to act in concert with other folks to try and shape an outcome, then that outcome will happen around you."

Syria will be top of the agenda when David Cameron meets Obama tomorrow. But despite intensive National Security Council meetings last week, the US appears further away than Britain and France from deciding to arm the Syrian rebels.

Last week Robert Ford, the US ambassador to Syria, crossed the Turkish border into Syria to meet rebel leaders. He took part in a delivery of military rations. The deliveries were part of a policy to support General Salim Idriss of the Free Syrian Army, viewed as a moderate. Asked about the American food, Idriss said: "That is very good. But weapons and ammunition are the tools that we need on the battlefield."

This article originally appeared in The Sunday Times.