At a recent regional conference hosted by the Lebanese Armed Forces in Beirut, a very prominent, careful, and well-connected journalist offered a stunning hypothesis that achieved instant credibility with a roomful of mainly Arab defense, foreign policy, and academic intellectuals: that far from being at sea in terms of Syria policy, the Obama administration is implementing a strategy that is cold, bloody-minded, and thoroughly deliberate. The idea is to stand back while Syria becomes a smoldering ruin, even with Bashar al-Assad perched atop the ash heap. In this geopolitical version of musical chairs, Iran and Russia would be left standing if and when their client emerges victorious and he begins to look for donors to help with Syria’s rebuilding. The United States and its allies would be comfortably seated with wallets in their pockets, smiles on their faces, and eyes glued to the spectacle of Moscow and Tehran saluting their client with arms spread and empty palms upturned.
The hypothesis seemed to appeal to many in the room. Those inclined to see the United States in a positive light expressed relief that there was, after all, a plan—even one taking cynicism and bloody-mindedness to new foreign policy heights. Those inclined to see the United States as the root of all evil were happy to see US policy equated with evil itself. The common denominator for accepting a hypothesis that should have been seen as crazy instead of credible was a belief that (at least in the Arab World) simply will not die: that Washington always works in accordance with a well thought out plan; that literally nothing happens as a result of thoughtlessness, inadvertence, accident, or idiocy. Plans sometimes fall short of achieving their objectives, but they are ubiquitous nonetheless. There is always, without fail, a design carefully crafted in Washington.
The hypothesis is utterly false. True, a senior administration official was once heard uttering words to the effect that Syria would be a terrific place for Iran, Hezbollah, and a collection of jihadist gangs to have their own Vietnam: a long and pointless bloodletting whose casualties would be bad guys exclusively. Yet surely the dire consequences for Syrian civilians of their country becoming a long-term killing field were well-known to this official’s boss: President Barack Obama. Most likely the official in question was trying to do what the journalist in Beirut tried to do: ascribe some kind of design and deliberation to what otherwise might appear as an appalling monument to miscalculation, carelessness, and the elevation of incautious rhetoric over the doing of sensible things. The difference between the official and the journalist was this: the official wanted to put a good face on his boss’ policy and strategic vision; the journalist was trying to explain the inexplicable.
In his September 2013 address to the United Nations General Assembly, President Obama said a great deal about the crisis in Syria: much of it eloquent and on-point. Yet he did not list the resolution of the Syrian crisis as a core US interest. The four he listed—defending allies and friends from external aggression, defeating terrorists who threaten the United States, protecting the flow of petroleum to world markets, and preventing the use and spread of weapons of mass destruction—are most definitely core interests. The reason offered by the president for not designating other important interests as “core” was that they (such as democracy promotion) would require collective action to defend and advance: as if the “core four” do not.
That the President of the United States cannot see a core US interest engaged by the political and humanitarian outrage of Syria with its spillover effects on allies and friends, the genocidal effects of systematic attacks on civilians, and the rise of terrorist groups promoted by Iran and Gulf donors, leads some to believe that the early resolution of this abomination is not terribly important to the United States. And if not, why not? In the minds of many Syrians and many Arabs it is because the United States is content to see one of the pillars of the Arab World brought down to the ground, smashed into a million pieces. This is patently untrue. But for people who think the United States has real power and influence and for those once inclined to take seriously the rhetorical guns of three consecutive Augusts (2011 step aside, 2012 red-line, 2013 military strikes), there is no other satisfactory explanation.
For Washington to consider the resolution of the Syrian crisis as a core US interest would require it to devote serious thinking and resources to the task. It is not inclined to do. An administration already concerned about the Middle East swallowing its foreign policy agenda is not looking to devote more time and effort to Syria. While it was wrong for strategic communicators to put in the mouth of the president words he had no intention of converting to action, President Obama has been otherwise consistent in giving the impression that there is not much he can do or is interested in doing about “someone else’s civil war.” Just as it was important for the administration to push back in early 2013 against evidence that the Assad regime was using chemical weapons, now it is critical to deny that there are genocidal aspects to the regime’s mass terror campaign.
Belief in Washington’s all-knowing omnipotence dies hard in the Middle East. It is hardly satisfactory to counter that belief by asserting that President Obama greatly prefers other things to messing with Syria; that Syria, from his perspective, is the mother of all time-management problems; something that should disappear from his inbox so that foreign policy time and effort can be rebalanced in favor of Asia. No doubt President Harry Truman would have preferred to focus on something other than Korea from June 1950 until January 20, 1953: he might have rebalanced toward the Middle East. Presidents are powerful. Yet they do not always get to choose or define that which is of transcendent importance.
The administration’s Syria strategy is largely one of avoidance: big money for humanitarian assistance, box-checking for the nationalist opposition, incautious rhetoric to issue warnings and broadcast concern. In terms of civilian protection, consequences for friends and allies, and Russian-abetted Iranian power projection, it is a strategy that has been risky in the extreme, and all in the name of risk-avoidance. Were Syria designated a core interest, options long on the table centering on the creation, multilateral support for, and defense of a governmental alternative in non-regime Syria would be pursued with discipline and determination. It is not too late to do so. It is too late only when we decide it is; when we decide to consign Syria’s fate to criminals and terrorists.
The United States wants this horrible conflict to end soon, on the basis of a political compromise that would marginalize terrorists across-the-board: the regime, the foreign legion assembled by Iran, and the jihadists. Washington has no interest in prolonging the suffering of Syrians, seeing the country destroyed, or watching terrorists fight one another while civilians either die or flee for their lives. Yet, when it comes to Syria, many Syrians and many of their neighbors are inclined to believe the worst about the United States. This article will not change their minds. To change minds, the policy itself must change.
Frederic C. Hof is a resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.