Those who think that President Barack Obama does not understand the crisis in Syria ought to read his remarks to the press at the US-ASEAN press conference in Rancho Mirage, California on February 16. Apologists for Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian and Russian enablers will not like the way the president parses the problem. The challenge, however, is to move the United States and its partners from analysis to action. One sentence uttered by the president—“This is not a contest between me and Putin”—does not bode well for Syria, its neighbors, or Europe.
Two passages in particular encapsulate the president’s view, and they are worth reading in full:
The question is, how can we stop the suffering, stabilize the region, stop this massive out-migration of refugees who are having such a terrible time, end the violence, stop the bombing of schools and hospitals and innocent civilians, stop creating a safe haven for ISIS. And there’s nothing that’s happened over the last several weeks that points to those issues being solved.
But it’s hard. I’m under no illusions here that this is going to be easy. A country has been shattered because Assad was willing to shatter it, and has repeatedly missed opportunities to try to arrive at a political transition. And Russia has been party to that entire process. And the real question we should be asking is what is it that Russia thinks it gains if it gets a country that’s been completely destroyed as an ally that it now has to perpetually spend billions of dollars to prop up? That’s not that great a prize. Unfortunately, the problem is, is that it has spillover effects that are impacting everybody, and that’s what we have to focus on.
Clearly President Obama agrees with the central argument of the Syrian opposition and its High Negotiating Committee: Assad and the Islamic State (ISIL, ISIS, Daesh) are inseparably linked in the catastrophic meltdown of the Syrian state and the prospects for its revival. Indeed, Secretary of State John Kerry’s central argument in his discussions with his Russian counterpart center on the inescapable need to sideline Assad—a serial war criminal—for the sake of a united Syrian front against ISIL. Obama and Kerry believe that indigenous Syrian forces alone can beat ISIL on the ground, and that neither a Kurdish militia nor Syrian rebel units (now being bombed by Russia anyway) are sufficient: only a consolidated Syrian force under a neutral, non-Assad transitional governing body can pull this together.
This is bad news for those who argue that the author of eradication as a political survival strategy can somehow play a unifying, stabilizing and calming role in Syria’s transition. The apologists have never been fully satisfied with the Obama administration’s attempt to hold Syria at arm’s-length, or its gaping disconnect between word and deed. They have wanted it all: for President Obama to climb down and accept (if not advocate) a continuing governance role for Assad and working with him against ISIL. Their best hope now lies in Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is trying hard to force upon the United States a binary choice between Assad and Baghdadi (the ISIL “caliph”) by eliminating militarily all alternatives to the twin wreckers of Syria.
It is precisely the nature of Russia’s objective in Syria, however, that makes Mr. Obama’s dismissal of a “contest” between him and Vladimir Putin disturbing. It would be one thing if what happens in Syria stays in Syria; President Obama could, like some of his twentieth century predecessors, simply turn his back on mass murder and rely on public indifference to sustain him. But Syria—the Assad-ISIL live-and-let-live destruction of a country, fully supported by Russia and Iran—is disgorging human beings to Scandinavia and beyond. If this wave of humanity—some of it terrified, some of it simply disgusted—enables the political bottom-feeders of Western Europe to rise to the top, will this not serve the purposes of Mr. Putin? President Obama acknowledges the “spillover effects” and is setting in motion military rotations in NATO states that respond to Moscow’s evident desire to resurrect aspects of the Cold War. But to where would they rotate in-and-out in a continent of Putinesque nativists rising to power in large measure thanks to Syria’s ruin?
There is indeed a contest between Messrs. Obama and Putin. At the moment it is very much one-sided, because (at least in Syria) only one side is competing.
Vladimir Putin is trying to create facts on the ground: he wants to eliminate all Syrian alternatives to ISIL and Assad. Barack Obama says his Russian counterpart is making a big mistake: Russia is about to “involve itself in a quagmire.”
Vladimir Putin’s air force hits hospitals and terrorizes civilians in rebel-held areas, killing many and destroying the morale of those left living. Barack Obama worries that a cessation of hostilities may not take hold. “It’s hard to do because there’s been a lot of bloodshed. And if Russia continues indiscriminate bombing of the sort that we’ve been seeing, I think it’s fair to say that you’re not going to see any take-up by the opposition.”
When Vladimir Putin decided he could, with perfect impunity, seize Crimea, there was absolutely nothing about the Western response to the crisis in Syria that would have dissuaded him or even slowed him down. President Obama is free to believe that Syria is not worth the candle. But at least from the time of the September 2013 “red line” fiasco it has not been all about Syria. Allies and adversaries alike have studied Washington’s behavior with great care. For Putin the game is afoot. For the American president, who watches from afar as Syrians die and Europeans writhe, Putin—to quote the Statler Brothers—is just “playing solitaire till dawn with a deck of fifty-one.”
There are no prizes for being analytically right and operationally on the deck. Ideally the agreement reached last week in Munich will lift some civilian sieges and save some lives. This is not to be minimized: it is only through the portal of civilian protection that political progress in Syria can be made. But if the wanton slaughter of civilians by Russian and Assad regime aircraft continues, those civilians will need air defense. And if American officials think that ISIL chieftains in Raqqa have in mind terror operations in Europe and North America, then it will not do to wait for the dreamed of united Syrian front to materialize: a ground force coalition led by the United States needs to kill these people, and soon.
Yes, moving from analysis to action entails risk and uncertainty. But so does standing pat. Western inaction, in the case of Syria, has inadvertently helped some of the worst actors on the planet bring us to where we are right now in terms of a humanitarian abomination and political catastrophe—hardly a risk-free, pleasant, predictable journey. Leaving Mr. Putin free to do as he pleases in Syria until the money runs out or he acquires respect for human life is the ultimate roll of the dice.
Frederic C. Hof is a Resident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.