The five-plus year failure of the United States to protect a single Syrian from the relentless mass homicide campaign of a rogue Syrian government will help to define the impact and the values of the Obama administration for as long as historians parse the humanitarian abomination that is Syria. It is a failure that facilitated, on an industrial scale, the taking of life, the breaking of bodies, the traumatizing of children, and the flight of the helpless. It is a failure that compromised the credibility of the United States and emboldened a Russian adversary, in Syria and far beyond. It is a failure that helped to place at risk European unity and the transatlantic partnership. It is a failure that, if President-Elect Trump stays true to pro-Russian and pro-Assad campaign sentiments, provides an easy segue from Obama foreign policy to Trump foreign policy. President Obama’s explanation for the failure only deepens it.
In a December 16, 2016 press conference, the president was asked about Syria and he replied in some detail. He said that “days or weeks of meetings” took place “where we went through every option in painful detail . . .” What it all came down to, according to the president, was that nothing useful could be done “short of putting large numbers of U.S. troops on the ground.” Given Russian and Iranian commitment to keep Assad in power, nothing at all could be accomplished “unless we were all in and willing to take over Syria . . .” In the end “it was going to be impossible to do this on the cheap.”
Do what “on the cheap?” Characteristically the commander-in-chief avoided explicitly defining an objective. By referring in his statement to American troops still serving in Afghanistan and Iraq and by alluding to taking over Syria, he seemed to be implying that the objective, against which strategic options were supposedly weighed, was the violent overthrow of the Assad regime. If this was the objective conveyed to the joint chiefs of staff then yes, a sizeable American ground force would have been required to invade Syria, defeat an array of enemies, occupy the country, and implement a stabilization plan. Clearly, if this is what the joint chiefs were asked to plan against, then a “no way will we do this” decision from the commander-in-chief would have been proper and inevitable.
And yet: as President Obama contemplates what to do about Russian computer hacking and the alleged Kremlin thumb on the American electoral process, is he asking the joint chiefs to plan on the basis of waging nuclear war? He would do so only if he wished to avoid taking action altogether on the basis on an absurd all-or-nothing proposition.
Claims by the Russian president notwithstanding, the violent removal of the Assad regime has never been an Obama administration objective. The president thought he could get regime change on the cheap by calling on Assad to step aside in in August 2011. He tried again in 2015-2016 by sending Secretary of State John Kerry empty-handed to the Russians with the proposition that Assad should heed the June 2012 Geneva Final Communique and pack his bags. But violent regime change through military measures has never been contemplated by the Obama administration.
What very senior members of the administration did recommend to the president was that he employ modest military measures to complicate a civilian slaughter free ride being enjoyed by the Assad regime, Russia, and Iran. Surely regime helicopters destroyed on the ground or falling from the sky would have complicated the otherwise leisurely delivery of barrel bombs onto civilian residential neighborhoods. Surely Russian pilots dealing with effective anti-aircraft weaponry would have found the targeting of hospitals to be somewhat more challenging than shooting fish in a barrel. Lives could have been saved. An end to the mass murder free ride might have given John Kerry something with which to work when engaging his Russian counterpart diplomatically.
Would measures designed to complicate, mitigate, and perhaps even end wanton civilian slaughter have led to the invasion and occupation of Syria? To listen to some White House personnel, it could have been worse: global conflict. “Do you think we should do World War III over Syria?” is a phrase often heard by incredulous White House visitors.
Indeed, some staffers channel the president flawlessly. By building an intricate six or eight-step escalatory scenario, asking “Where does it end,” and demanding proof that a proposed step will do literally that which is intended, any prospect of doing anything at all to save a life or confuse an assailant is expunged from consideration. When putting a .50 caliber machinegun round into a parked regime helicopter becomes – through a perversion of the Socratic method – the opening shot of World War III, Syrian lives become not only expendable, but literally not worth the price of a bullet.
Not content with seizing and monopolizing risk, thereby adding octane to the mass homicide free ride, the president also managed to slip in the customary ‘blame the opposition’ clause for which he and his aides have demonstrated appetite and expertise over the years. He refers to an “opposition on the ground” lacking the cohesion “to necessarily govern the country.”
The Assad regime and its captive government – still recognized as Syria’s legal government by Washington – certainly enjoys the cohesion required to commit whatever war crime and crime against humanity it deems necessary to “govern the country.” And there are those in the White House – perhaps including the president – who persist in believing that the downfall of the 21st century’s premier mass murderer could create ‘instability.’
But again, at the heart of Mr. Obama’s alibi-rich statement is a non sequitur: American policy does not aim at violent regime in Syria; it does not seek to put a group of opposition figures in charge of Syria. It seeks instead a negotiated political settlement under the provisions of the 2012 Geneva Final Communique: a political objective thoroughly gutted by a gaping disparity between word and deed and a disciplined refusal to try sabotaging mass murder.
The view here is that President Obama fears that any American-abetted attempt to protect Syrian civilians could alienate Iran and cause it to abandon the July 2015 nuclear agreement. In fact, Iranians in track two settings have articulated deep shock and unbridled delight with American passivity in Syria: they fully expected the American president to align deeds with words about ‘stepping aside’ and ‘redlines’ even as the nuclear deal was being negotiated and implemented.
And as significant as the nuclear agreement is, the price for leaving Syrian civilians to the tender mercies of the regime, Russia, and Iran has been prohibitive, and not just for the immediate victims. Syria’s neighbors and Western Europeans can testify to the price. Political moderates in the West trying to survive the surge of Putinism can attest to the price. And it has all been for naught: Iran took American push-back in Syria as a given and is not likely to abandon an agreement that pays it significant dividends.
Russia has used Syria to help Washington and the West shred their credibility and strain their unity. It has done so on the cheap. And President Obama’s defense of the indefensible, relying as it does on citing the prohibitive cost of achieving an objective that does not exist, is very much part of the post-factual world he pretends to condemn. He will have no basis to complain if the Trump administration merely formalizes the operational bottom-line he has already achieved by dropping the empty rhetoric about human suffering and declaring an explicit understanding with Russia and the Assad regime.
Frederic C. Hof is director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.