SyriaSource|Amplifying Syrian voices

October 13, 2015
President Barack Obama's take on Syria is that there is the Islamic State (ISIL, ISIS, or Daesh) in the east - an entity that must be degraded and destroyed - and the Assad regime in the west - an entity that should be negotiated out of existence. The United States will bomb ISIL from the air in the east. It will view with disapproval and disappointment Russia's bombing of American-assisted nationalist Syrian rebel units in the West. It is not lost on Syrians that the protection of civilians from mass murder in Kurdish Kobani has no parallel in western Syria. For Mr. Obama, however, the two parts of Syria might as well be separate planets. It is this perception that produces policy failure and frustrates the president's desire for diplomacy.

During recently concluded track two discussions with senior, non-official Iranians, one Iranian participant delivered a piece of Dutch Uncle advice to his American counterparts. "Forget about Assad's Syria. The United States has no interests there. Refugees? They are problems for Syria's neighbors and for Western Europe: not America. Be rational: pursue your own interests."  A discussion of mass homicide in Syria produced the same Iranian response: "Yes, what is happening is bad. But what is your interest?"

The view that the United States has no obligation to support allies and friends and no responsibility to try to protect civilians from mass murder is hardly one restricted to Iranian track-two participants. Most Americans probably agree with it, at least reflexively. Presidential candidates seek and receive ovations when articulating renditions of "let them all kill one another—it's none of our business!" Many Americans see merit in the proposition that the burdens of world and alliance leadership should be shed; that the country should focus on its own problems and let others—provided they do not assault the American homeland—fend for themselves.

The antidote to this default reasoning is inevitably and inescapably presidential leadership. This presents a real problem for the current incumbent. It is not that he lacks charisma or intellectual brilliance. It is not that he is unable to make a coherent argument. It is not that he agrees with the "let's put down our pack" crowd. Barack Obama is, in the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and others an internationalist who takes American leadership responsibility as a given. And even though he has tolerated in his official circle officials enamored of the morality-free "let them all kill one another in Syria" argument, he personally attests to being disturbed by the humanitarian abomination caused in the main by the Assad regime's indiscriminate assaults on population centers.

The problem President Obama faces in convincing Americans to continuing bearing the burden of supporting allies and trying to protect vulnerable populations in faraway places is that he himself has given, in his Syrian narrative, some credence to the Iranian advice. He has expressed the view that to protect people in one place is to incur an obligation to do it everywhere and simultaneously. He has suggested that since there is no single silver bullet to cure Syria's ills, all alternatives to standing by and watching are "half-baked." He has indicated a belief that Syria is an exact analog of Iraq and that Iraq 2003 is the immutable model of what happens when the United States tries to do anything in the Middle East. He has argued that to employ limited military measures in western Syria—as opposed to the east—is to mount the slippery slope to Iraq-style invasion and occupation. He has permitted his aides to propagate the view that his critics—not the administration—are responsible for the train-and-equip fiasco, and that Syria is just too complicated to be addressed by a coherent strategy.

Barack Obama has, in short, implied in the context of Assad Syria that his role is one of disinterested analyst, commentator, and critic. Even if recent events—most notably Moscow's military intervention and deliberate Russian attacks on American-supported Syrian nationalist rebels—persuade him privately that his policies have failed, how will he convince Americans that the course must be changed? Can an uncertain trumpet become, more than four years into this crisis, a clarion call?

The view here is that it cannot. President Obama has dwelt far too much on the notion that Iraq 2003 is the quintessence of 240 years of American foreign policy, that Syria threatens to become a repeat engagement, and that avoiding "stupid stuff" of this nature defines the way forward for the United States of America. Barack Obama can, over the next fifteen months, direct the doing of positive and useful things in Syria. But it will be hard for him to rally Americans publicly to support things in which he has heretofore expressed healthy skepticism and profound disbelief. It will be up to his successor to make the case for the periodic efficacy of American power projection.

The president wants a diplomatic solution to the mass murdering, ISIL-facilitating depredations of the Assad regime, one that preserves the institutions—such as they are—of the Syrian government while showing the door to Bashar al-Assad and a few dozen key enablers fully complicit in collective punishment and its associated crimes. How badly he wants it should dictate what he does to complicate collective punishment—starting with barrel bombs—and to counter Russian attacks on American-supported personnel. Another gratuitous Iranian comment at the recent meeting centered on Iran and Russia—in marked contrast to the United States—setting the ground conditions for a desired political-diplomatic outcome: the survival in power of Bashar al-Assad. This was a point no American could counter.

Is a specific diplomatic solution in western Syria an administration national security objective or just a throwaway talking point? Actions alone will tell: lecturing the Russians that they are making a grievous error will neither conjure the desired result nor dissuade Moscow from trying to create facts; an effort that will magnify suffering inside Syria, augment the tide of humanity exiting Syria, and provide timely aid and comfort to ISIL, whether it succeeds or not.

No one can predict Syria's omega. Yet unless the alpha includes a healthy measure of civilian protection that enables humanitarian workers and civil society activists to do their jobs in relative safety, nothing in the way of a diplomatic process can or will gain traction. Iran and Russia see mass murder as essential to their client's survival and rehabilitation. They very much want the United States to acquiesce through indifference. They want Americans to mind their own business, as they define it. They may yet succeed.

Frederic C. Hof is a Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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