There’s an unfortunate tendency among foreign policy decision makers in Washington to believe that all options remain on the table indefinitely. Hence, President Obama may believe that the same debates and policy options that occurred two years ago, at the start of the Syrian uprising, still exist today.
The fact of the matter, be it in Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, or anywhere else is that realistic policy options and opportunities to achieve the most favorable outcome for the United States diminish over time. Two years ago, it made sense to support the Syrian opposition. President Bashar al-Assad, far from being the Western-educated reformer in which the Clinton administration and State Department officials placed so much hope, was a brute who supported Hezbollah, transformed Syria into an underground railroad for Al Qaeda terrorists infiltrating Iraq, and sought to build a covert nuclear program.
The United States is never the only player in the sandbox, however. By standing on the sidelines, the United States took a pass as supposed allies like Qatar and Turkey aided not the more liberal or nationalist Syrian opposition, but rather the most extreme elements. Qatar did so for ideological reasons, and Turkey did so both because of its leadership’s ideology and because it would rather support religious radicals than allow more secular Kurds to establish a canton across the border in Syria.
John McCain is right to be frustrated by President Obama’s refusal to head the advice of his national security and diplomatic advisers and aid the Syrian camp at a time when U.S. intervention—via a no-fly zone or a safe-haven—might have averted 70,000+ Syrian deaths (and just as many disappeared) and also could have hastened an end to the brutal war before Assad succeeded in his campaign of ethnic and sectarian cleansing, and before Al Qaeda-affiliates like the Nusra Front took root.
Now it appears that al-Nusra has established itself on the Iraqi border, where it can wage sectarian terrorism not only in Syria but in Iraq as well. Al-Nusra today has released footage of yet another suicide bombing it perpetrated in Idlib. Its statements read like Al Qaeda-themed Mad-Libs.
Make no mistake: Seeing what the Syrian opposition is now does not make Bashar al-Assad a better option. The simple fact is that both Assad and the opposition are now both equally detrimental to U.S. national security interests. Washington has no good options. The idea that some moderate force might emerge in Syria committed to rebuilding their shattered state rather than perpetrating terror against Syria’s own population and that of its neighbors is now an unrealistic dream.
In his State of the Union address, Syria was an afterthought. “We’ll keep the pressure on a Syrian regime that has murdered its own people and support opposition leaders that respect the rights of every Syrian,” Obama declared in his last minutes on the podium. That’s too little, and two years too late. The simple fact of the matter is this: Because of Obama’s Syria bungling, we will face a potent threat from that regime for years to come regardless of whether Assad is overthrown. Against the backdrop of sequestration, it would behoove the United States to start planning not simply for next month, but for how it handles the threat from the Levant and Eastern Mediterranean in 2016, 2017, and 2018, for the Syrian opposition–not the five-star hotel exiles who carry little weight on the front line of battle, but rather the Nusra front and the radicals on the ground–is quickly becoming as potent a threat as the Assad regime itself.