With so much attention being focused on Russian aggression in Ukraine and the collapse of Secretary of State John Kerry’s Middle East peace talks, the ongoing disaster in Syria hasn’t gotten much attention lately. That’s good news for President Obama because as much as Ukraine and the peace talks are genuine defeats for the administration, it’s possible to argue that his retreat on Syria was far more humiliating than either of those other situations. By backing down from his threats to bomb Syria once the Bashar Assad regime crossed the “red line” personally imposed by Obama on the use of chemical weapons, the president’s international standing and credibility as a world leader to be reckoned with sunk to a new low.
In punting on Syria, President Obama helped set the stage for future problems because of his decision to basically hand the issue of chemical-weapons disposal to Russia. In doing so, he inflated Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sense of invulnerability that made aggression in Ukraine more likely. But there was another more direct result of the White House’s shameful flight from principle: the preservation of the Assad regime. The American willingness to back down on threats of intervention and the increased cooperation with Assad’s Russian ally more or less guaranteed the survival of the very regime whose fall President Obama had repeatedly demanded.
But now, several months after Obama’s demarche on chemical weapons, the proof that Obama had preserved Assad is unmistakable. When the Syrian government announced on Monday that the country would hold a presidential election, it was one more confirmation that Assad believes he has won the civil war. Though it will be a travesty, we can expect that the dictator will be reelected with a total that is somewhere north of 95 percent of the votes cast. Assad will have many people to thank for being able to pull this off: Iran, Hezbollah, and Vladimir Putin. But he will be remiss if he doesn’t also express gratitude to Barack Obama.
As his rant at a news conference in the Philippines illustrated, Syria is a sore point for Obama. But rather than vent his spleen on the critics who have the temerity to point out his weakness by calling them trigger-happy warmongers, the president would do better to search his own conscience and wonder just how many of the more than 100,000 people slaughtered in that country might have been saved had he decided to act in the early stages of the unrest there.
The initial demonstrations in the wake of the Arab Spring protests showed just how weak Bashar Assad was in 2011. The second-generation dictator was deeply unpopular and the people of Syria were clearly begging for change, if not something approaching democracy. As was the case with Libya’s Qaddafi, a swift and limited intervention in Syria could have easily toppled Assad with little cost to the West. While the aftermath might, like that in Libya, have been messy, the cost of inaction turned out to be even worse than some of Obama’s sternest critics feared. Not only did the indifference of the West embolden Assad to use any and all means to preserve his regime, but weakened opposition forces were soon infiltrated and arguably dominated by radical Islamists. This could have been avoided had Obama done something more useful than spout empty predictions of Assad’s imminent demise.
This “lead from behind” strategy created the worst of all possible outcomes: a human-rights catastrophe in which Assad was allowed to slaughter tens of thousands with impunity and the growth of an Islamist faction that rallied many of those who hated the regime to its ranks.
What has happened in Syria over the past three years gives the lie to all of the administration’s pronouncements about its concern for human rights. But it also demonstrates how a feckless foreign policy motivated by fear of involving America in foreign tangles can make a bad situation worse. As much as Assad owes his life to his Iranian, Hezbollah, and Russian allies, his faux reelection this year would not have been possible had Obama shown resolve early on in the crisis when a decent outcome was still possible and the costs of intervention were lower. That’s a sobering commentary on Obama’s lack of leadership. But when one considers how many tens of thousands of lives might have been saved had America had a leader with the courage of his convictions, it is a disgrace that all the accolades given him by the liberal press will never be able to erase.