Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria is monstrous. A hundred thousand civilians have died at its hands in the last two years, and more than a million Syrians have fled the country since it began its war of attrition against rebel groups. It is almost certainly responsible for the massacre of up to 1,300 people in a suburb of Damascus last week through the use of chemical weapons. Many of the victims included women and children. Assad is a Baathist thug of the highest order, a figure of unremitting evil with few parallels in the modern world. The downfall of his dictatorship cannot come soon enough, and no peace can be realistically achieved in Syria until Assad goes.
In the face of Assad’s brutality, however, Washington and the West as a whole have been largely impotent. The White House’s strategy has been one of abject confusion, with no clear leadership from the president. Barack Obama’s approach has been one of “leading from behind,” a phrase first coined by one of his own advisers. He has been content to farm out US foreign policy to a feckless United Nations, and has kowtowed to a ruthless Moscow, which views Syria as a client state, a useful bulwark against American influence in the Middle East, and a thorn in the side of the world’s superpower.
The Russian “reset,” pioneered by Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, has been one of the biggest foreign policy flops of the modern era, involving an extraordinary degree of deference towards a major strategic adversary. Clinton, it should be recalled, referred to Assad as “a reformer” as recently as April 2011, while former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as well as former Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry, made a number of trips to Damascus to meet with Assad prior to the civil war.
Similarly, the Obama administration has been content to allow the Iranians to plough money, arms and military personnel into Syria in support of Assad, providing a vital lifeline for the pariah state. Washington’s engagement strategy with Tehran has been a massive folly, simply emboldening the Mullahs with no consequences.
In an effort to look serious on Syria, President Obama outlined in August 2012 what he called a “red line” with “enormous consequences” if chemical weapons were used by Damascus, while never explaining exactly what those consequences would be. Having set out his stall, the president now feels compelled to act, at the very least to save face after international outrage and pressure from London and Paris. His preferred solution appears to be a series of limited air strikes against military and command facilities inside Syria, little more than a pin prick approach that is highly unlikely to alter the course of the war. Half-hearted air strikes might make Obama feel good, but they won’t be a game changer. They could end up strengthening, rather than weakening Assad. They may also prove very unpopular with the American public, weary of being drawn into another war, and could have the effect of deterring a more robust long-term leadership role by the United States in the Middle East, including dealing with the far greater Iranian threat. According to the latest Reuters/Ipos poll, a mere nine percent of Americans support a US military intervention in Syria.
Syria is not Iraq or Afghanistan, where the United States had clear-cut military objectives and national interests at stake when it went to war. The conflict in Syria is further complicated by the rise of Islamist groups with links to al-Qaeda, who have thrived amidst the chaos, and in some cases have targeted the Christian minority in the country. The Obama administration has made little serious effort to cultivate pro-Western, non-Islamist rebels in Syria, whose influence has waned, while the Islamists have gained strength.
Ultimately, the Syrian debacle has exposed the emptiness of the Obama doctrine, one that is based upon hand-wringing, appeasement, and the scaling back of American power. President Obama has been content to weaken U.S. influence, while playing a back seat role on the world stage. There are many things the White House could have done to erode Assad’s regime over the past two years while strengthening the hand of pro-Western rebels, including aggressively challenging Iranian support for Damascus, forcefully standing up to Moscow at the UN Security Council, coordinating support for the Free Syrian Army among the Gulf States and Turkey, and pressuring the Saudis to crack down on Islamist networks fueling al-Qaeda-tied groups in Syria.
President Obama has been a largely invisible presence throughout the Syrian crisis. Firing off a few cruise missiles at a late stage is no substitute for clear-headed American leadership. The approach did not succeed in stopping Osama Bin Laden ahead of the 9/11 attacks, and it will not be a panacea for dealing with Assad either.
Over the last few days, the United States, pushed along by an assortment of Western and Middle Eastern allies, has been moving unmistakably toward an imminent military intervention in Syria. While the development has obviously been spurred by the horrifying Aug. 21 chemical attack in Damascus, which killed over 300 people and sickened at least 3,500, the rapidity with which the intervention plans are being developed brings several questions to mind.
1. Secretary of State Kerry said yesterday that the US will soon produce information to back up its claim that the Assad regime perpetrated the recent chemical attack. When will the proof be produced, and what is it?
2. Kerry also accused the Assad regime of cynically covering up evidence by continuing to bomb the attack sites, and of not giving the UN investigators immediate access to the sites. He further cited a sniper attack on the UN convoy as evidence of obstruction. Since the site of the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack is in territory that has been a rebel stronghold for months, is it reasonable for the US to have made this claim?
3. Is there a possibility that the Aug. 21 attack was an accidental hit – of chemical stocks belonging to either the regime or the rebels – by the undisputed massive regime bombardment in the area at the time? It is known that the regime has been frequently moving its chemical weapons to keep them out of rebel hands, and it is also known that rebel fighters, including al Qaeda-linked groups, have sought and reportedly had access to chemical weapons. The Al Nusrah Front is known to have pursued chemical weapons; credible reports of the group plotting to conduct sarin and mustard gas attacks have emerged from Iraq and Turkey over the past several months.
4. Why is the US so quickly dismissing the UN investigative effort as too late to deliver credible results about the Aug. 21 attack despite the fact that the team had arrived on Aug. 18 to investigate months-old complaints of chemical weapons attacks, including one lodged by the regime in March?
5. Is there a way to rule out the possibility, given the timing of the Aug. 21 attack, that it could have been perpetrated by rebel groups seeking to draw the US into a military intervention against the Assad regime?
6. The regime has much to lose by mounting chemical weapon attacks, and especially while UN inspectors are in country and the world’s eyes are turned toward Syria. Why now? Is the basic vagueness of the US’s accusation due to a Western decision that now is the time to intervene militarily, regardless of who perpetrated the attack, since there is clearly a very distinct danger of the spread of chemical warfare in the region at this point?
Rebel reports of another attack today, this time allegedly involving phosphorous and napalm in Aleppo, do not add clarity to an already very murky picture.
7. What is the US’s endgame in Syria? Reports are emerging that the Obama administration seeks to “punish” Assad for using chemical weapons. Is this sound strategy, or a tactic that can potentially backfire?
8. What happens if the US actually succeeds in killing Assad and overthrowing the government? Will Islamist terror groups such as the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic State of Iraq dominate the political scene in Syria, as they have dominated the fighting? And if so, is that in the best interests of the US and the West, or, for that matter, those of Syria and the region? The West’s efforts for a resolution to the conflict in Syria ultimately hang upon the fragile hope that moderate forces will prevail, in a situation where the two strongest military forces, the Assad regime and its largely Islamist opponents, each offer only harsh alternatives.