“For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for (Syrian) President (Bashar) al-Assad to step aside.” Those were US President Barack Obama’s words on Aug. 18, 2011, then marking the biggest shift in Washington’s position towards the crisis, and ensuing heavy criticism afterwards for lack of follow up and strategy to what has become a war of attrition in Syria.
Is the US to blame for the prolonging Syrian conflict? Could Assad have been toppled if Washington had moved more aggressively? Or should the US have stayed out and refrained from calling on him to cede power? There is little consensus among Syria experts who spoke to Al Arabiya English on what Washington should have done in retrospect. They all agree, however, that the Obama administration shares “partial responsibility” for the current fiasco.
US mistakes in Syria
Calling on Assad to step down without having a roadmap to realize such an outcome or a Plan B if it falters were the White House’s leading mistakes on Syria, according to the experts.
“It was a mistake to call on Assad to step down, a miscalculation. If the President (Obama) wanted to stay out, he should have stayed out,” says Joshua Landis, Director of the Center for Middle East and Associate Professor at the University of Oklahoma’s College of international Studies.
While the White House wanted to be on the right side of history after the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia, Landis says Obama’s move “gave false hope to the Syrian opposition that Washington will back them and go the extra mile to ensure Assad’s removal.” Instead he thinks, Obama “could have condemned the brutality and sanctioned Assad without giving false hope to the opposition.”
Activists of Planet Syria wearing masks depicting some of the world leaders Lavrov, Obama, al-Assad, Putin and Ban serve a siege soup outside the U.N. in Geneva. (Reuters)
Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of “In the Lion’s Den: An eyewitness account of Washington’s battle with Syria,” identifies the mistake in the events that followed the call on Assad to step down.
Tabler says that there was an assumption inside the administration that “sanctions were enough to topple Assad.” He adds: “Having worked on sanctions personally, I told decision makers at the time that getting Assad to leave was going to take a plan that would at least involve the threat of military force from some quarter.” The administration was very reluctant to the use of force in Syria, and rejected ideas from some in the Syrian opposition to fly over the presidential palace in Damascus, or bomb Assad’s runways.
The shadow of the Iraq war loomed large over the White House’s deliberations on Syria. Perry Cammak, an associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who worked with Secretary of State John Kerry between 2013 and 2015, says Obama’s “strategic impulse to keep the United States out of Syria was the right one, given our experiences in the Middle East over the last 25 years.”
Experts point out to another mistake for Obama in Syria, seen in the expensive but lousy process of arming the Syrian rebels ($4 million dollars per fighter) after the uprising turned violent at the end of 2011 and in response to Assad’s actions.
Faysal Itani, Resident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, says that “blame cannot be assigned exclusively on the United States” and that part of the problem is the “poor job that the regional backers have done in supporting the Syrian rebels.” Looking back, Itani points out that the insurgency backers “tolerated and sometimes encouraged the rise of hardline Islamists, in the absence of US supervision.”
Tabler agrees, and says that the Obama administration’s decision “not to arm the Syrian nationalist and moderate battalions and outsource it to our regional allies led to multiple agendas, a further fracturing of a divided opposition, and unfortunately the growth of extremist groups.”
Cammack and Landis, however, see that a problem emerged by not pursuing a more vigorous political route. “ Having decided that America wasn’t going to be involved militarily, more still could have been done to shape the diplomatic landscape and channel our allies’ frustration,” says Cammack. While Landis says a more organized opposition and not pursuing the “Assad-must-go” path with the countries in the region, could have helped early on.
Backtracking on its own red line on the regime’s use of chemical weapons in the summer of 2013 was another “disaster” in the Obama approach, according to Tabler. He says that the “non-strike incident of August 30, 2013, led every American ally in the Middle East, Europe and the Asia to question American credibility.”
In the real world, Tabler adds, “if you are not going to enforce a red line, don’t lay it down in the first place.” Landis disagrees and says the magnitude of the “small strike” that the Pentagon was preparing to execute might not have changed the ground situation or it could have backfired with weapons going to the wrong hands in Syria.
Did the US have options?
One argument that the Obama administration puts forward against criticism of its Syria policy is there are no alternatives. With more than 250,000 dead, tens of millions displaced and in refuge, and cities flattened in Syria, the US has led in humanitarian aid but still appears to see no clear path to end the conflict.
Itani, however, points out to “infinite combinations of alternative policies across a wide spectrum” that the US could have undertook in the past five years to achieve a more effective policy in Syria. Most dramatically in the form of “military action against the regime and more subtly, a serious effort to fighting an effective proxy war using its own local allies, particularly before the revolution entered a more radical phase from 2013.”
Syrian rebels attend a training session in Maaret Ikhwan near Idlib, Syria. Fewer than 100 Syrian rebels are currently being trained by the U.S. military. AP
Now Itani sees “the only way to salvage the situation is by bolstering the insurgency's position.” This could be by creating “safe areas in opposition held-territory (in the south, for example, where extremists are relatively weak), inserting a coalition ground force in ISIS territory and perhaps making that a safe zone, giving the rebels anti-aircraft weapons or building a real opposition army and sending it into Syria.”
Landis does not see these options as realistic or any longer viable because of Russia’s intervention in the conflict last September “blocking” the potential for “any safe zone” and due to Washington’s continued objection to supply the rebels with anti-aircraft weapons.
Following the advances of the Assad regime backed by the Russian air force, Landis sees “Assad consolidating more territory” and he could “eventually win...absent of a surprise that would take him out.”
As for Washington’s responsibility for the Arab world’s bloodiest war in recent history, Tabler says “US policy contributed to this current nightmare and Washington bears at least partial responsibility.” Cammack agrees that US is “partially responsible” for not doing more politically, while Landis insists that the US “cannot fix Syria.”