The cataclysmic war in Syria, and the catastrophic refugee crisis, are underlain by the moral and strategic deficits of American foreign policy. Of course, the brutal and bloodthirsty Assad regime and brutal and bloodthirsty terrorists bear the primary blame. But, the American response has enabled bad actors, and made the situation worse.
Ruinous violence and extreme atrocities, resulting in four million fleeing Syria, constitute one of the worst humanitarian disasters the world has ever seen. Dire geopolitical and human consequences are compounded by Iranian and Russian intrusions and radical-Islamist advances. With a sea of humanity massacred, brutalized, displaced, traumatized or radicalized, we must face the faults in our policy, so that better policy can be found.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sometimes accused opponents of being “on the wrong side of history.” Let’s look, then, at the history of the Obama administration’s Syria policy, and see if we find anything that’s right.
The Syrian rebellion began with peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations, and only grew violent in response to Syrian president Bashar Assad’s atrocities. Activists wanted human rights, free elections, an independent press and judiciary, and an end to the hated Emergency Law. When protestors poured into the streets in 2011, Mr. Assad shot them down. When protests then grew,Mr. Assad initiated massacres, arrests, kidnappings and torture – even of children. When brutality further fanned the flames of revolt, Mr. Assad employed cluster bombs and attack helicopters on rebels and civilians alike. They pleaded in vain for moral and material support from the free world. President Obama and Secretary Clinton ignored their plight, while occasionally issuing neutral requests that the “violence” on both sides stop.
In spite of the regime’s relentless assault, by mid-2012, the Syrian regime was, in the NATO Secretary-General’s words, “approaching collapse.” Rebels had gained significant territory and their numbers were steadily increasing. Mr. Assad had earned the hatred of so much of the populace that his overthrow seemed a matter of time. With momentum on the rebels’ side, England, France, Turkey and Saudi Arabia proposed concerted aid to the Syrian resistance – but the U.S. rejected ideas such as a no fly zone, a humanitarian corridor, and supplying arms to vetted rebels, relying instead on a weak U.N. response. The resultant vacuum opened the door to Syrian allies Russia and Iran, and to extremist groups eager to hijack the Syrian revolt.
As late as September 2013, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies pointed to the “the risk that a still largely moderate Sunni rebel movement in Syria may be driven to extremism if Assad survives.” But, Hezbollah, Iranian Quds, al Qaeda affiliates and Kurdish militants vied for dominance. ISIS, many of the leaders of which had been released from years of torture in Mr. Assad’s prisons, was growing fast. The radicalization and escalation of the conflict suited Mr. Assad well. Invigorated by jihadi-caused setbacks to the Free Syria Army and the FSA’s failure to procure viable aid, he amplified his reign of terror–with barrel bombs, blockades and starvation, and systematized torture.
In April 2013, Israel, France, Britain and Turkey all provided evidence that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons. Yet in May, Secretary of State Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov announced plans for a conference based upon the Geneva Communique which, while calling for transitional government, did not require Mr. Assad’s departure. In August, Mr. Assadunleashed chemical weapons on thousands of Syrians, thereby egregiously breaching Mr. Obama’s “red line.” Smelling another opportunity, Russia commandeered another plan – for a “peace conference,” and removal and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons by 2014 if the United States refrained from striking Syria.
It was misguided to think anything good could come from a plan orchestrated by Russia, which provided cover for Syria in the U.N., and supplied many of the very weapons Mr. Assad used to massacre civilians. It was foolhardy to place faith in Russia on the issue of chemical weapons, for it was Russia that, while everyone else was “confirming” Mr. Assad’s use of chemical weapons, denied and questioned their use. Tellingly, the UN resolution that formalized the plan did not invoke Chapter VII, which would have authorized the use of force if Syria didn’t disarm.
By calling for compromise and confirming Mr. Assad’s role in negotiations, the agreement re-legitimized his regime. Emboldened, regime forces re-seized rebel territory. How tragic-absurd that the United States adopted such policies. History tells us not to put faith in negotiations with murderous dictators; Hitler’s Germany provides them with a model of how to cooperate just enough to buy time for their deadly aims. Indeed, the Geneva II Conference rapidly fell apart, with the regime denying it had accepted the idea of transitional government, and the opposition insisting upon Mr. Assad’s departure.
This did not stop the administration from approving another Russia-sponsored “peace conference,” in early 2015. Before the failed Moscow conference, Mr. Kerry expressed hope that the conference would be “helpful,” while, afterward, he called it “useful.” Yet, even the goal of a transitional government had been dropped, benefitting Mr. Assad.
As the U.S. continued to equivocate, Iran, Russia and Syria seized the day. In late 2014, the administration did finally approve a Pentagon program to train and arm vetted rebels, but it was beset with delays and inefficiency. U.S. cooperation with Iran in the battle against ISIS, and corollary willingness to go along with Iran’s shielding of the Syrian regime, further helped Mr. Assad. Forging strategy against ISIS without also forging strategy to thwart the brutality and aggression of Syria, Russia and Iran was and is a terrible mistake. The advantageous Iran nuclear deal plays right into their hands.
With Russia jolting the U.S. by moving in tanks and drones and launching airstrikes against Syrian rebels, the U.S. held military talks with Russia, which Mr. Kerry said would be aimed at finding “common ground.” Mr. Obama asserted at the UN that there should be a “managed transition” toward a different Syrian leader. The administration is considering more “peace talks” in which Mr. Kerry said we would not be “doctrinaire” about the time or date of Mr. Assad’s departure. But compromise is not the way of extremist regimes. Moreover, the Syrian people cannot “coexist” with a regime that causes such pain.
Whatever we do now is too little, too late, but something must be done. The administration must stop handing Russia and Iran the lead, and stop alienating pro-democracy forces and moderate allies. The United States, with Middle Eastern and European partners, should unambiguously insist that Mr. Assad go and condemn his barbarity, address the humanitarian crisis, consider a no-fly zone, find new ways to assist vetted rebels and refugees, and form cohesive strategy against ISIS. The United States of America must show that it does care about the security of the free world, and the freedoms for which it supposedly stands.
This article was originally published at Washington Times on October 5, 2015. Read the full article here.