Responding to reporters’ questions on October 2, President Barack Obama made clear the inadmissibility in Syria of any US cooperation with “a Russian campaign to simply try to destroy anybody who is disgusted and fed up with Mr. Assad’s behavior.” Yet even in the face of Russian air attacks on forces that have received US assistance, the president signaled no change of policy and no desire to acquire the kind of leverage in Syria that could take him and his policy beyond the speaking of words toward the achievement of objectives.
Indeed, his choice of language may have the unintended effect of encouraging Moscow to believe that Washington will concentrate exclusively on the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL), leaving it and Tehran free to help the Assad regime liquidate all of its non-ISIL enemies and kill thousands of civilians in the process. Russian air attacks on US-trained and equipped Syrian rebels aim to sustain an Assad regime whose atrocities have made much of Syria safe for ISIL. This is hardly a state secret. Secretary of State John Kerry has been direct and eloquent on the Assad-ISIL connection.
Yet the president seems to be on a different page. According to Mr. Obama, there are actually two separate and distinct conflicts. “This is a battle between Russia, Iran and Assad against the overwhelming majority of the Syrian people. Our battle is with ISIL.” To paraphrase former Secretary of State Jim Baker, President Obama—as opposed to his Secretary of State—seems to think that when it comes to Assad regime mass murder (atrocities that aid and comfort ISIL) the United States “does not have a dog in the hunt.”
On its face, the president’s formulation does indeed seem to indicate that the United States will concentrate on bombing ISIL targets in eastern Syria while leaving Russia and Iran free to boost ISIL’s recruiting prowess by sustaining Assad’s program of collective punishment and mass homicide in the west. The words employed also seem to mean that Syrian rebel units on the receiving end of past US assistance will be left unprotected, unless attacked by ISIL. Most disturbingly, the president’s bifurcation of the struggle for Syria may confirm the belief of nearly all Syrians that the Obama administration will do nothing to complicate—much less eliminate—the Assad regime’s ability to murder civilians on an industrial scale. Such confirmation would do nothing to stem the tide of Syrian hopelessness or the refugees it produces.
The president’s words were clear. In a crisis characterized by unintended consequences, President Obama’s choice of language might inadvertently encourage bad actors in Moscow, Tehran, and Damascus to do their absolute worst. In his rush to denounce domestic critics of his Syria policy (“half-baked ideas”), the president sacrificed the kind of ambiguity that can be useful when adversaries try to calculate the reaction of the United States to their aggressive acts.
Indeed, Moscow received a specific and gratuitous public assurance from the President of the United States: “We’re not going to make Syria into a proxy war between the United States and Russia. That would be a bad strategy on our part.” “Bad strategy” in this context is to assure an aggressive adversary that US military power is off the table and deterrence, therefore, nonexistent.
Still, Syrians—particularly the nationalist opposition to the Assad regime—should resist the temptation to see the president’s words as a deliberate green light for Russia. They should try to understand that President Obama and his “strategic communications” advisors have but one audience: an American public they deem exhausted and disillusioned with foreign entanglements. How presidential statements register with Syrians, Russians, Iranians, or anyone other than Americans is of minor import to this administration. The “good news” is that there was no conscious effort to encourage Russia to do its worst in Syria. The “bad news” is that Moscow may have been duly encouraged anyway.
As for “the overwhelming majority of the Syrian people,” they already disbelieve the sincerity of President Obama’s words about their unspeakable suffering. They know what senior administration officials know: there are fully baked alternatives to leaving Syrian civilians at the mercy of Syria’s barrel bomber-in-chief. What they—along with US allies and partners—cannot fathom is the failure of the American president to connect the dots operationally between Assad’s impunity, ISIL’s prosperity, and Syria’s hemorrhage of humanity. What US allies find particularly perplexing is the president’s disciplined self-denial of leverage that could mitigate the Assad regime’s contribution to ISIL and perhaps even open a path to the Syrian political process he earnestly wishes to encourage.
Yes, the president fears losing his footing on a slippery slope should he authorize limited military countermeasures to stop the barrel bombing. Yes, the president has little faith in the efficacy of US military power and views everything through the lens of Iraq 2003: just as his successor may use Syria 2011-2015 as a model of what not to do. Even though the nuclear agreement with Iran has survived disapproving majorities in both houses of congress, he may still worry that steps taken now to end the onslaught on Syrian civilians may irritate or even alienate Iran. Yet there is a price for inaction: no leverage. The ongoing slaughter aids ISIL and neuters diplomacy. Words alone—even if chosen with care—cannot suffice to rectify any of this.
President Obama’s sentiments about critics offering “half-baked” alternatives is no doubt sincere. But in the case of Syria, literally nothing can ever be baked to the satisfaction of someone who doggedly believes nothing will work. After all, people with the foreign policy and national security credentials of Leon Panetta, Hillary Clinton, David Petraeus, and Martin Dempsey could not survive an oral with Professor Obama. Skepticism is good. Risk-avoidance has merit. Military means are always the last resort. But words matter and even dogged inaction can produce cosmic, unintended consequences. President Obama will not degrade or defeat ISIL on his watch by artificially dividing the struggle for Syria into two compartments and by inducing self-paralysis by monopolizing a burden of risk that ought to be carried by others—Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime come to mind—who should have some level of concern about confronting the United States. Perhaps it is time for someone other than the President of the United States to feel leverage-free and out of options.
Frederic C. Hof is a Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.