Syria: A Stain on Obama's Legacy

Nothing the Obama administration has said or done has helped in any way to stop the Syrian bloodbath. After repeatedly changing positions, even he now admits it haunts him.

The rubble of damaged buildings after an airstrike on the rebel held al-Qaterji neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria September 25, 2016.
Abdalrhman Ismail , Reuters

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had an original idea at the United Nations Security Council on Wednesday. He called for the grounding of military aircraft in “key areas” of Syria, in an attempt to prevent airstrikes on civilians, such as the one two days earlier on a UN aid convoy near Aleppo, which shattered the “cessation of hostilities” he had agreed on only a week before with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. 

Besides the fact that he did not specify which “key areas” he meant, the main problem with Kerry’s suggestion was that he would not commit to any mechanism for enforcing the grounding of the two air-forces currently bombarding Syrian civilians – those of Russia and the Assad regime. Lavrov, of course, was quick to dismiss the idea. 

There have been three no-fly zones enforced by international coalitions over the last three decades – over Bosnia, Libya and the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. In all these cases, it took well-equipped western air forces, usually led by the Americans, to enforce the restrictions and, when needed, to shoot down aircraft which tried to enter the zone. 

But no country will voluntarily ground its aircraft and give up its strategic advantage. From the early stages of the civil war in Syria, when Assad’s planes and helicopters began bombing civilian areas, the opposition has been beseeching the west to impose a no-fly zone. The Obama administration refused then, despite the relative ease of enforcing a curfew on the regime’s threadbare air-force. 

Leaders of both rebel groups and civil society organizations continue to insist that a no-fly zone would be the single most significant means of preventing civilian deaths. But at this point, any attempt to enforce one would lead to a clash with Russian fighter-jets. 

A drone reveals the extent of Aleppo's destruction.

If U.S. President Barack Obama was reluctant to enter military adventures throughout his time in office, then an aerial showdown with Moscow is the last thing he’s about to contemplate in his last months in the White House. 

But the total collapse of the cease-fire, followed by the pummeling of besieged Aleppo by Russia and the Assad regime, caused an exasperated Kerry to put forward a suggestion that was both unrealistic and, at the same time, a retreat from the administration’s previous positions. Nothing the Obama administration has said or done has helped in any way to stop the ongoing carnage, now approaching half-a-million human beings dead in Syria.

Kerry's proposal wasn’t the most major of the administration’s about-faces throughout the Syrian war. The policy reverse which is regarded as the most crucial was Obama’s decision in September 2013, not to order a series of strikes on the Assad regime, in response to its use of chemical weapons in a Damascus suburb, killing 1,400 civilians. 

Despite having stated a year earlier that chemical weapons would be a “red line” which, if crossed, would impel the U.S. to act, Obama preferred to take hold of the lifeline handed him (and Assad) by the Russians, in the shape of the regime agreeing to dismantle its chemical arsenal. 

Obama’s decision three years ago is still seen as a game-changing moment. In a lengthy interview published this year in Atlantic magazine, the president was still proud of liberating himself from the “Washington playbook,” according to which the U.S. was obliged to act militarily in order to preserve its standing. 

He still maintains that giving the order to launch the Tomahawk missiles wouldn’t have achieved the outcome of toppling Assad anyway. However, when the strikes were originally planned, that wasn’t the objective – it was making it clear to Assad that he couldn’t use chemical weapons with impunity.

Syrian men rescue babies and children after an air strike on the rebel-held Salihin neighbourhood of Aleppo, on September 11, 2016.
Ameer Alhalbi/AFP

Looking at the last five-and-a-half years of American inaction in Syria, that moment in September 2013, doesn’t seem that pivotal. It was only one in a line of retreats, adaptations and reversals that continue to this day. 

In the first months of the civil war, when Assad’s forces were butchering democracy demonstrators, the administration refrained from calling for his removal. That position changed later on, but in the last year, as negotiations with Russia progressed, America gradually came to terms with Putin’s demand that Assad be allowed to stay in power. 

The attitude toward Russia also underwent a transformation. A year ago, when the first Russian planes were deployed to Syria, the administration described it as a grave mistake by the Kremlin and announced they were not going to cooperate with them. Weeks later, coordination between the Pentagon and the Defense Ministry in Moscow was under way. In the last version of the cease-fire, there was already a plan for a joint operational center. 

The different policies to the Syrian rebels were even more numerous – from a total veto on supplies, to non-lethal assistance, to weapons only for “vetted” organizations. Then there were the different programs of the CIA and the Pentagon for training and arming rebel groups, which operated under different guidelines. Neither succeeded as most of the rebels returning to Syria were either killed or went over to Islamist groups which Washington wouldn’t deal with. 

And then, of course, there was the arrival of ISIS on the scene. At that point, the administration decided that the U.S. could operate in Syria, but only against ISIS; it even urged the rebels it was aiding to stop fighting Assad and focus on the Islamic State instead. 

Obama’s fiercest critics maintain that his real motive for inaction in Syria was a fear of jeopardizing the talks with Iran, which he hoped would create a new strategic balance in the region. As proof of their claim that the administration was holding the Syrian rebels hostage to its diplomacy with Iran, they contrast Obama’s support for the revolution in Egypt, only months earlier, with the lack thereof in Syria. 

For added flavor, they mention his similar reluctance to lend even moral support to the Green Movement protesters in Iran, who in 2009 gathered in the streets of Tehran and were viciously suppressed by the regime. In a press conference in December 2015, Obama spoke of “respecting Iran’s equities in Syria.” Though he didn’t specify, that was seen as an admission that the U.S. would not try to topple Assad or go after Iran’s main proxy, Hezbollah. According to at least one report, the Iranians had also threatened to call off the nuclear talks if the U.S. had gone ahead and launched strikes on the regime in 2013.

Whether or not there has been a direct link between the diplomatic overtures to Iran and policy on Syria, there’s no doubt that Obama, who arrived in the White House committed to end America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, saw Syria as “Iraq 2”. 

In recent years, the U.S. has had to return some soldiers to both Iraq and Afghanistan, to prop up the governments of those countries and fight terror organizations. It also took part in the international coalition that helped the Libyan rebels overcome Colonel Gadaffi in 2011, though Obama was visibly reluctant and acted only when his allies in Europe – France and Britain, took the lead. 

Ultimately, the U.S. is also bombing in Syria, but only ISIS. As the leaders of the Syrian Opposition say wearily, the only red-line Obama hasn’t crossed is attacking the Assad regime and those fighting on its side. 

In other parts of the world, Obama’s foreign policy has been based on a world-view that no matter the ideology and the motives of foreign leaders, they could be relied upon to ultimately be reasonable and play by the rules. That was his approach throughout the upheavals in Egypt, toward the Iranian and regime and in his dealings with Russian President Vladimir Putin. It is unclear whether, toward the end of his presidency, Obama has abandoned this perspective, but as far as Syria is concerned, he seems to think that the rules don’t apply there. 

In Obama’s last State of the Union address in January this year, he said that “The Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.” It was clear he was trying to explain America’s inability to achieve any meaningful result in Syria.

It was a worrying excuse, which reminded many of the arguments made by western diplomats and politicians in the mid-1990s against intervening in the wars of the disintegrating Yugoslavia, because these were “ancient hatreds”, incomprehensible to outsiders. This argument delayed for years the west’s action in Bosnia and then Kosovo, enabling the murder of tens of thousands of civilians. 

The main supporting role is being played by the tragic figure of John Kerry. Unlike Obama, who seems to believe that nothing America can do will help Syria, Kerry sounds as if he believes anything can help. Which is why at times he has supported attacks on regime targets to “pass a message to Assad” to stop slaughtering civilians. 

But he has at times also been in favor of a ceasefire that would preserve Assad’s regime. So much so that he threatened opposition figures in February that they would receive no more aid from the U.S. and be decimated by the regime if they opposed the agreement he was brokering with the Russians. 

Kerry has almost simultaneously held the positions that there will be no place for Assad in Syria once the war is ended and contemplating future negotiations with him. The end of the Obama administration will most likely also bring down the curtain on Kerry’s long political career. He had hoped that the Iran deal would be its crowning achievement, but now it is tainted by abject failure in Syria. 

In an interview published last weekend in Vanity Fair that summed up his eight years in office, Obama admitted that Syria “haunts me constantly” and that “of all the things that have happened during the course of my presidency, the knowledge that you have hundreds of thousands of people who have been killed, millions who have been displaced, [makes me] ask myself what might I have done differently along the course of the last five, six years.” 

He is still insistent that he made the right call in not supplying more arms to the rebels and in refraining from attacking the regime in 2013, saying that he “tend(s) to be skeptical” about claims that such moves could have deposed Assad. And yet, he asks himself “was there something that we hadn’t thought of?” Something that a leader of the stature of Winston Churchill or Dwight Eisenhower would have come up with.

Barring an unforeseen incident, Bashar Assad will remain in his presidential palace after Barack Obama vacates the White House in three-and-a-half months. Thousands of civilians will continue to die in Syria. Until the last moment Kerry will continue flying off to meet Lavrov, and Obama will try to distance himself from the whole issue, as he has been doing for the last five-plus years. 

That won’t change the fact that his unwillingness to become involved has only increased his responsibility for the largest global tragedy of his time in office, one which has already become an indelible stain on his legacy.