Ending the Free Ride

The call by 51 State Department officials for President Barack Obama to consider military strikes to slow down and complicate the human eradication campaign of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is stimulating the usual litany of objections and excuse-making. Just as the free ride for mass murder in the Balkans in the 1990s was successfully challenged by American diplomats, so the current dissent against American indifference and passivity will eventually prevail. Unlike the Balkans twenty years ago, however, ending the free ride for mass homicide and policy disaster in Syria may require a new American president. 
The dissenting officials have called for neither the invasion nor the occupation of Syria. They have not demanded violent regime change. They recommend neither a strategic bombing campaign nor a gratuitous confrontation with Russia. They have simply suggested that the president consider employing modest, mainly stand-off military means to impress upon Syria’s barrel-bomber-in-chief that there are costs beyond the price of aviation fuel (no doubt subsidized by Iran) for slaughtering human beings in their homes, hospitals, schools, mosques, and market places.

Consider the following scenario, one based on established fact. The United Nations finally succeeds in delivering food and medicine to the long-besieged Damascus suburb of Daraya. Soon after the deliveries are completed and Daraya residents are out in the streets, Assad regime helicopters deliver a barrage of barrel bombs. Dozens of people—including children—are killed. Dozens more are maimed. The rest are merely terrorized and traumatized.

The current response of the US government is to condemn such atrocities “in the strongest possible terms” from the podium, and to ask the Russians, for the umpteenth time, to kindly restrain their Syrian client so that negotiations aimed at ultimately replacing him can resume in Geneva.

The Russians react with contempt, claiming that surely the Syrian Air Force was targeting terrorists and that the deaths of civilians—if any—would certainly be the fault of the Syrian opposition, which has failed to expel terrorists from population centers. To drive home its contempt Russian aircraft then target an American and British trained Syrian rebel unit being prepared to fight the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh). Washington wrings its hands in frustration. What in the world can those Russians be thinking?

The State Department Syria hands taking exception to the serial humiliation of their country have suggested that the United States might employ cruise missiles to hammer an Assad regime airbase in response to a regime mass murder incident. Vice President Biden claims that experts have examined this option (and others) and found that absolutely nothing will work. Really? President Obama has actually told his secretary of defense that he wants real options aimed at ending Assad’s free ride, and the Pentagon has come up totally empty? Not very likely. Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly quizzes the dissenters on the international law justification for complicating mass murder, ignoring President Obama’s own vigorous defense of humanitarian intervention after having received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.

The alibis for looking the other way while innocent people are slaughtered and American credibility shredded are legion. Topping the list is the assertion that lifting a finger will only make things worse; better that Mr. Assad should enjoy his free ride irrespective of the costs to Syrians, their neighbors, and American allies; the American experience in Iraq beginning in 2003 dictates with absolute certainty the failure of any effort to protect Syrian civilians, no matter how modest and circumscribed. Add to this President Obama’s disinclination to cross Iran in Syria. The prospect of the dissenters prevailing between now and January 20, 2017 are not good.

Still, as if on cue media reports are now popping up suggesting that Iran and Russia are rethinking their support of their war criminal client. Perhaps the State Department dissent is provoking concern in Moscow and Tehran that they can no longer take for granted that which has been, for them, a gratuitous gift of incalculable value: the willingness of the United States to let them and their client do as they please to Syrian civilians irrespective of the humanitarian and policy costs.

Most likely Iran and Russia want to encourage the White House to press on with a policy dependent entirely on their good will and that of their client. They need more time, after all, to neutralize Mr. Assad’s nationalist enemies and to punish the populations associated with them. If, on the other hand, the reports are real, we should expect the mass murder to stop forthwith so that peace talks can reconvene. But we have seen this film before: Assad supporters feigning reason and flexibility whenever they fear the magnificent gift of American passivity may be expiring.

Russia and Iran do, however, face a critical choice: seek a Syrian political transition deal with the Obama administration or roll the dice on the outcome of the American presidential election. The greatest danger now, however, is that Russia’s Vladimir Putin will interpret American passivity in the face of his client’s Syria-emptying savagery and his own attacks on American-trained, anti-ISIS units as license to do something dangerously destabilizing in Europe. Russian (Soviet) calculations of supposed American weakness led to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Instead of settling up in Syria with the Obama administration as he should, Putin may think that he too has a free ride, one taking him well beyond the Levant. Washington has no business stimulating this kind of dangerously destabilizing thinking. 

The State Department dissenters have taken exception to the self-defeating and reckless policy of American passivity in Syria. They have proposed that the Assad free ride be brought to a halt. The administration insists that its leverage-free policy of verbal condemnations and plaintive pleas in the face of a collective punishment campaign inflicting horrific damage on the lives of Syrians, the politics of European allies, and the reputation of the United States is the only option available; that the United States can do nothing but beg Russia and Iran to end Bashar al-Assad’s mass homicide free ride. The Obama doctrine in Syria is simple: to try is to fail; to stand is to fall.

Someday, if anything at all remains of Syria, the United States will end the free ride and Americans will ask themselves, as they did two decades ago when mass murder in the Balkans was at long last ended, why in the world it took so long to do the right thing. Ideally Barack Obama will, like Bill Clinton, see the light. If he does not, Syrians, their neighbors, and our European allies will be utterly dependent on the humanity of a mass murderer and the decency of his foreign supporters. Surely the next American president can do better than this.

Frederic C. Hof is director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Image: PHOTO: A Red Crescent and United Nations aid convoy carrying food aid, arrives near the Grand Douma mosque in the rebel held besieged town of Douma, eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria June 10, 2016. Picture taken June 10, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh