Syria: Making Good on the President’s Words

President Barack Obama is on the record saying that the protection of Syrian civilians from barrel bombs—the most spectacularly visible manifestation of Assad regime mass murder—is now a core US interest. Making good on the president’s words is vital for the credibility of a nation whose network of alliances spans the globe. For example, Japan’s strong interest in what the administration says and does about Syria is rooted in one critical question: under current White House management, is the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan worth the paper it is printed on?

It is understandable that an administration that sees the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq as the quintessence and culmination of the United States abroad would wish to avoid altogether any military involvement—even low-risk variations thereof—in the Syrian crisis. Yet involved it is, dropping precision munitions on Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) positions as the Assad regime drops barrel bombs on Syrian civilians. Those on the receiving end of Bashar al-Assad’s renewed chemical attacks—chlorine canisters embedded in barrel bombs—see collusion between a Nobel Prize Laureate and a war criminal: a false conclusion to be sure, but one not entirely unreasonable from the points of view of victims who have seen US military aviation come to the defense of beleaguered Yazidis and Kurds. What, they ask, is so acceptable to Barack Obama about the slaughter of our children?

Apparently, the slaughter is no longer acceptable. On April 4, 2015, President Obama told Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, “Our core interests are that everybody is living in peace, that it is orderly, that our allies are not being attacked, that children are not having barrel bombs dropped on them, that massive displacements aren’t taking place.” Two weeks later barrel bombs continue to fall on Syrian children. Two weeks later the Assad regime continues to target civilians in ways that promote massive displacements. What precisely is being done to achieve what the President of the United States defined, in clear, unambiguous language, as a core interest of the country whose government he heads?

White House officials may regard the question itself as impertinent and naive. The president was, after all, speaking extemporaneously; responding as best he could to the questions of a reporter. It was not a speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations. It was not a State of the Union address. One must not read too much into the president’s words. The president speaks ex cathedra only in set pieces after the bureaucracy has shaped every word and punctuation mark.

If this were indeed the case—if the leader of the free world was simply bantering with a guy doing an interview—then perhaps a clarification would be in order. This is what happened immediately after Secretary of State John Kerry’s misstatement about negotiating with Assad. The White House could put out the word that what the president really meant to say was that civilian protection—to include children being barrel bombed—does not rise to the level of core US interest.

Obviously, such a clarification would be awkward and counterproductive. It would stimulate unbridled hilarity among the Assads, Putins, Khameneis, and Kims of the world. It would reinforce the Assad-Obama secret handshake belief of many in the Middle East. Unless President Obama really meant what he said and intends to do something about it, the White House would probably opt for the commander-in-chief’s words to be filed away in the Syrian dead letter office along with “step aside” and “red line.”

As matters now stand, Assad’s helicopters are free to visit murder and mayhem indiscriminately. Complicating and frustrating their ability to do so does not require the 82nd Airborne Division dropping in on Damascus. It does not stretch the existing universe of military science. Yes, it might upset Iran: an accomplice, according to Ambassador Samantha Power, in Assad’s campaign of mass murder. Indeed, Iran—according to the administration—might retaliate by turning Iraqi Shia militiamen it owns and operates against uniformed US advisory personnel in Iraq. The administration raised this hostage-like scenario so that it could surrender to it preemptively, as if no feasible force protection options exist. Perhaps the administration also believes that an Iran blocked on the war crimes front in Syria will walk away from the nuclear negotiations, choosing as a matter of principle to suffer from economic sanctions for the indefinite future rather than accede to the saving of lives.

Speaking recently with a reporter about some forward-leaning Syria language used by a very senior administration official publicly in a gathering of Gulf Arab officials, I found the reporter’s reaction both interesting and profoundly depressing: “Yes, he said that. But keep in mind the audience. It was entirely situational.” This from a reporter quite familiar with the modus operandi of the official in question.

So, are we in a brave new world where words—even (or especially) those emanating publicly from the lips of senior US government officials—have no meaning? One may well come to that conclusion without accepting the corollary: that words do not count. They do count. They have consequences. The thing President Obama should do is that which millions who supported his political rise already did: he should take himself and his words seriously. He should move now in ways he knows will minimize risk to save the children of Syria. He should defy the Supreme Leader to do something about it. He should make good on his own words.

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

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Image: A boy carries two children as he evacuates them from a site hit by what activists said was a barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo's al-Fardous district April 2, 2015. (Reuters)