Commentary Magazine


The Costs of Obama’s Syrian Disaster

When President Obama made the case for U.S. strikes on Syria last year and then ignominiously retreated in the face of congressional opposition and wound up agreeing to a deal that handed Russia responsibility for cleaning up that country’s chemical arms, it marked a new low for U.S. Middle East policy. But a war-weary America that wanted no part of yet another foreign war merely shrugged. Most acknowledged, however, that Obama’s retreat was humiliating. But the rise of a new isolationism has muted any potential public outcry over Obama’s irresponsibility in demanding the ouster of Bashar Assad or the hollow bravado of his talk of “red lines,” let alone any concern for the slaughter of more than 100,000. Even those initially inclined to support military action in Syria came to believe that it might now be too late to act since Obama’s dithering may have squandered the chance to replace Assad with pro-democracy rebels instead of al-Qaeda-related terrorists. When Obama punted the Syrian question to Russia, some observers hoped that the deal for the removal of the regime’s chemical weapons would, at least, limit the damage.

But several months later, the problem has not just disappeared as the president hoped it would. The American people may be no more interested in dealing with Syria today than they were last August, but at least Secretary of State John Kerry seems willing to admit, albeit privately, that the administration has been party to a complete disaster that may well come back to haunt the U.S. in a catastrophic way. Speaking with at least 15 members of Congress in an off-the-record meeting, as the Daily Beast reports, Kerry told them that the talks with the Russians have not succeeded in dealing with the chemical-weapons issue, let alone in ending the Syrian civil war. Even worse, he admitted that al-Qaeda-connected opposition groups are now entrenched in the country and may well be planning to attack the American homeland. But comments such as these weren’t likely to stay private for long, as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham leaked them yesterday, provoking the usual denials from both the White House and the State Department.

While McCain and Graham may hope to use this information to gain more support for their proposals to arm moderate Syrian rebels, there appears little appetite in either the Congress or the country for any intervention in Syria. But as much as administration officials may be counting on public apathy to shield them from being held accountable for their Syrian fiasco, Kerry’s admission about the strengthening of al-Qaeda should shock the nation. Just as importantly, these revelations shed new light on the utter bankruptcy of the administration’s groundless faith in the nuclear talks with the other major player in Syria: Iran. Although the administration has worked tirelessly to shout down the bipartisan majority of the U.S. Senate that wants to pass more sanctions on Iran with the administration’s spurious claim that the alternative to the current diplomatic track is war, the tragic outcome in Syria illustrates that there is something even worse than a conflict with Iran.

While granting Russia pre-eminence in Syria diplomacy was a matter of concern, many in Washington believed that doing so would at least contain the Syrian war and allow the administration to stay out of the conflict without paying any tangible penalty for its humiliation. But punting on Syria has left the country in the hands of two horrible forces: Assad and his Iran/Hezbollah allies and the potent Islamist forces that seem to have superseded moderates as the principal alternative to the ruling regime.

Just as Obama’s two years of fatal indecision on Syrian action left him with few good options by the time he woke up to the fact that he had to make some decision last summer, it appears that several more months of delay have only served to make the situation look even more grim. If Kerry has now conceded that the Russians can’t be trusted and has disclosed to Congress the potentially lethal nature of the threat from al-Qaeda, it is obvious that Obama’s diplomacy has succeeded only in creating new problems that may not be contained within Syria’s borders.

Much as the administration would prefer to stifle any efforts to use Kerry’s remarks as a way to initiate a new examination of its Syria policy, the U.S. failure must also unquestionably influence all present and future discussions of the president’s efforts to foster détente with Iran.

Armed conflict should always be the policy of last resort, but this administration’s avoidance of force has become its single, guiding principle. This does not go unnoticed by our foes, be they al-Qaeda or Iran. In Syria we have seen what happens when the West is unwilling and/or unable to muster forces to back its own threats of the use of force to end a brutal regime that murders its people by the tens of thousands. Rather than containing the problem to a small Middle Eastern country about which few Americans care, the implosion within Syria now threatens to mushroom into a conflict that could, if Kerry and intelligence director James Clapper are to be believed, eventually pose a threat to the United States. That is a problem that won’t be solved by U.S. reliance on the Russians or their Iranian partners in the Syrian catastrophe.

The connection to the Iran nuclear talks  can’t be denied. Syria did far more than highlight the irresolution of Obama’s foreign policy. It gave a textbook illustration of the mortal dangers of weakness on the international stage. That weakness was not lost on Iran when it negotiated an interim nuclear deal in which the U.S. discarded its economic and military leverage and tacitly recognized Tehran’s “right” to enrich uranium. Just as Assad believes the current diplomatic track in Syria will not undermine his rule, so, too, his Iranian backers are understandably confident of their ability to negotiate and achieve Western recognition for their nuclear program. And just as America’s inability to act in Syria may have engendered a powerful al-Qaeda enclave there, blind faith in diplomacy is setting in motion a train of events that could lead directly to an Iranian bomb. The result of all this is not only a more dangerous Middle East but also an American homeland that is demonstrably less secure because of Obama’s continuing and uncomprehending failures.

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