Obama’s real mistake in Syria

Image courtesy of the US Department of Defense

As US President Barack Obama’s eight-year term winds down, he has been facing intensifying criticism for failing to stop the carnage in Syria—what many call his ‘worst mistake.’ But the alternatives his critics tout would have been just as problematic.

Obama’s detractors condemn his decision not to launch a forceful military intervention to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad early in the conflict, when the US could have backed more moderate forces that were supposedly in play. At the very least, the critics maintain, Obama should have enforced the so-called ‘red lines’ that he set, such as intervening in the event that the Assad regime deployed chemical weapons.

In failing to intervene early and decisively, it is said, Obama shirked his United Nations-backed ‘Responsibility to Protect’ civilian populations from governments committing war crimes against them. Moreover, he left space for external powers that support Assad—especially Russia, which has sent trainers and strike aircraft to help Assad’s forces—to intervene in the conflict.

This criticism misses the mark. While Obama certainly made mistakes in his Syria policy—mistakes that contributed to the crisis spiraling out of control—the interventionism that is increasingly being championed by liberal and neo-conservative pundits alike has proved destructive on more than one occasion, including in Iraq and Libya.

What pundits, politicians, and the public should be advocating is a more integrated foreign policy. Combining leverage and logic, such an approach would advance short- and long-term objectives, selected and prioritized according to their capacity to benefit American interests, not to mention the rest of the world, in a sustainable way.

In Syria, a central element of such an approach would have been engagement with Assad. The initial decision to break off all ties and call for him to step down represents failure of analysis, the effects of which the Obama administration has never been able to escape.

In 2011, the Obama administration determined that, like in Tunisia and Egypt, the ‘Arab Spring’ uprising in Syria—widely viewed as a broad-based democratic movement—would topple Assad. Even when the regime launched brutal counter-attacks in places like Hama, Homs, and, most dramatically, in Aleppo, US officials seemed convinced that Assad’s fall was only a matter of time. He was cornered, it was believed, and merely flailing desperately against the inexorable tide of history.

Based on this assessment, the US and others sought to isolate the Assad regime. They worked to unite the opposition groups, often offering significant support. And they called for the establishment of a provisional government and a democratic election.

The assessment was wrong. And, because good policy is impossible without good analysis, so were the policies.

The flaws in the Obama administration’s appraisal of the Syrian crisis soon became apparent. Most obvious, Sunni radicals with foreign support quickly dominated the ‘popular democratic movement.’ The entity that emerged—the so-called Islamic State (ISIS)—was not trying to take down a brutal dictator, but to suppress nonbelievers and apostates and establish an extreme Sunni Islamist caliphate.

To be sure, many outsiders claim that radicalization was not inevitable, and that it occurred precisely because external powers like the US failed to intervene earlier and more forcefully. But studies indicate that the shift happened very early on. Indeed, the anti-Assad movement may never have been the enlightened democratic coalition that its international supporters claimed it was, at least not completely.

Beyond misreading the opposition, the Obama administration made another fateful mistake in Syria: failing to take into account the interests of other powers. Russia, in particular, has a considerable strategic stake in Syria and serious concerns about its takeover by jihadists, which by many accounts include radical elements from Chechnya.

The US dismissed all of this, seemingly unable to take to heart anything members of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government had to say. Instead, American officials often delivered to their Russian counterparts lectures on the evils of the Assad regime. Russia, they declared, simply needed to get on the right side of history.

But would overthrowing a sovereign government—even an appalling dictatorship like Assad’s—really place the US or Russia on the right side of history? If nothing else, Syria remains a United Nations member. And it is worth remembering, yet again, how previous attempts at forcible regime change, such as in Libya, turned out.

Yet in the US and elsewhere (tellingly, far from the frontlines), the chattering classes continue to agonize about supposed lost opportunities to intervene militarily and protect civilians. Few seem willing to consider the possibility that the real lost opportunity actually lies in the failure to help spearhead the negotiation of a viable, peace-enhancing settlement. Perhaps it is a matter of simple political self-preservation: in the US, maybe more than elsewhere, changing one’s mind is derided as flip-flopping, and considered a worse option than sticking to a failed policy.

Nonetheless, some promising adjustments are, it seems, being made. Now that ISIS is losing ground, the US and Russia have begun to deepen discussions on greater military coordination. One hopes that this cooperation extends to planning how a complex and devastated society can be administered in the future.

Of course, at this point, it is impossible to say what will emerge from the Syrian crisis. A new Sunni-led state? Multiple new states? Even a re-drawn map of the Middle East is a possibility. What is certain is that the outcome will have a major impact on Syria’s neighbors and the broader international community. Their interests, together with the interests of the Syrian people, must inform any effort to end the carnage and create conditions for long-term peace.