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Extremists’ Role in Syria Was Not Inevitable

The Obama administration is only beginning its second term, but it is already clear that its mishandling of Syria is turning out to be one of its biggest foreign policy failures. The evidence accumulates every day–whether in the form of more dead bodies piling up in Syria, or more refugees crowding neighboring countries, or more foreign jihadists rushing into Syria. Just yesterday the New York Times ran this interview with Hajji Marea, one of the most potent rebel commanders to emerge out of the fighting, who is quoted as follows:

“America keeps silent,” he said. “The way we see it as Arabs: If you are silent, then you are agreeing with what is happening.”

Sitting nearby, Abdel-Aziz Salameh, Al Tawhid’s political leader, warned that time was running short for the United States. “All the world has abandoned us,” he said. “If the revolution lasts for another year, you’ll see all the Syrian people like Al Qaeda; all the people will be like Al Qaeda.”

As some of us have been saying since the start of the revolt, there was nothing inevitable about the growing prominence of al-Qaeda; the extremists might have been sidelined by a more active American policy of support for the more moderate rebel factions.

The Times reveals this morning that this was precisely the policy option advocated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and CIA Director David Petraeus last summer. “But,” the story continues, “with the White House worried about the risks, and with President Obama in the midst of a re-election bid, they were rebuffed.”

In other words, President Obama was so committed to his “tide of war is receding” mantra that he was willing to ignore a growing war in Syria so as not to run political risks during his reelection. The proposal to arm the rebels might have been given a serious look after the election were it not for the scandal which brought down Petraeus and the concussion which sidelined Clinton.

So now the White House appears committed indefinitely to a “lead from behind” strategy in Syria even as the evidence of that policy’s failure becomes starker every day.

One suspects that Clinton and Petraeus–along with Leon Panetta and, before him, Bob Gates–will be sorely missed in the second term. They were important advocates of a more moderate, centrist, activist American foreign policy. With their departure, there seems to be little standing in the way of a policy of retreat and retrenchment for which the U.S. and our allies are certain to pay a heavy price in the years ahead.


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