On Wednesday, United Nations war-crimes investigators indicted Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and his government for complicity in the commission of gross crimes against humanity, including the use of weapons of mass destruction against civilians.
“Government forces continued the pattern of using chemical weapons against civilians in opposition-held areas,” the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria findings concluded. “In the gravest incident, the Syrian air force used sarin in Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib, killing dozens, the majority of whom were women and children.” In fact, that April attack on civilians using the nerve agent sarin is believed to have killed more than 80 people and might have injured 500 more. That attack and the global outrage it inspired compelled President Donald Trump to mount a series of retaliatory cruise-missile strikes on the nearby Syrian government-controlled airbase from which the attack was believed to have originated.
This was among the worst of Syria’s chemical atrocities, but it wasn’t an isolated event. UN investigators have confirmed 33 chemical-weapons attacks to date, six of which occurred early in the country’s civil war and have no identified perpetrator. The other 27 were conducted by forces loyal to Damascus. One of the earliest and most grotesque of these assaults on human dignity took place in 2013 in Ghouta. There, approximately 1,000 people died as a result of exposure to sarin.
It was this attack that compelled Barack Obama to finally take seriously his year-old, self-set “red line” for action in Syria. In early September of that year, the president addressed the American public in prime time and made a compelling case as to why America must intervene to prevent more crimes against humanity and the erosion of the norm prohibiting the use of chemical weapons on the battlefield. Yet in that same bizarre address, the president informed America that this urgent global crisis could wait for a vote of support from a skeptical Congress. Moreover, he added, Moscow had intervened diplomatically, and no intervention was likely necessary.
The speech was a Frankenstein’s monster of last minute attempts to absolve Barack Obama from his responsibilities as president, and he’s been struggling to clarify his motives ever since. “I’m very proud of this moment,” Obama told Jeffrey Goldberg, unconvincingly, almost exactly one year before the massacre at Khan Sheikhoun. “[T]he fact that I was able to pull back from the immediate pressures and think through in my own mind what was in America’s interest, not only with respect to Syria but also with respect to our democracy, was as tough a decision as I’ve made—and I believe ultimately it was the right decision to make.”
If history was inclined to provide Obama absolution for his inaction in the face of war crimes, you might think his team would be content to allow history to run its course. They’re not.
Tablet’s Armin Rosen provided an alarming window into the Obama administration’s efforts to hijack ostensibly responsible institutions and compel them to whitewash the effects of Obama’s equivocations. As a result of Tablet’s reporting, a study of the Obama administration’s Syria policy sponsored by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has been scuttled at the last minute due to the number of eyebrows it raised. “Using computational modeling and game theory methods,” Rosen reported, the study dubiously concluded that executing strikes on the Assad regime would not have led to fewer attacks on civilians. Indeed, there might have been more as a result.
This report’s conclusion was a mystery, but the motive behind it wasn’t. The Holocaust Museum’s Memorial Council members at the time of this report’s composition included Obama administration officials who are deeply invested in ensuring history comes to that same conclusion. Among them were former Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes and several Obama-era National Security Council members.
Donald Trump did not address the nation when he executed 59 retaliatory cruise missile strikes on a Syrian airfield. Barack Obama already gave that speech. It wasn’t Obama’s lofty rhetoric but his apprehension that emboldened Assad to exacerbate the worst humanitarian and refugee crisis of the century. That’s a legacy that needs polishing. Apparently, Team Obama isn’t above hijacking the moral authority of Holocaust memorials in the pursuit of that objective.