Obama, Khamenei and the making of Syrian tragedy

Syria, the mother of all tragedies in the 21st century, remained a sideshow for President Obama

Hisham Melhem
Hisham Melhem
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For all its agony, in full display frame by bloody frame for almost four years, Syria, the mother of all tragedies in the 21st century, remained a sideshow for President Barack Obama. The slow death of an ancient land where great cultures and civilizations are layered with their entire splendor on top of each other – Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Jewish, Christian and Muslim – never penetrated the insular cold world that Obama inhabits.

Sure, there were the occasional, and sometimes eloquent, expressions of sympathy and sorrow, following the massacre of an entire village, the destruction of a whole neighborhood, the sectarian and ethnic cleansing of towns, but Syria never warranted a truly serious, honest deliberation on the part of the president as to what the United States can do with Syrians and others to stop the abominations of the Assad regime and his Russian enablers and Iranian protectors. In the scheme of things that occupied Obama’s mind in the Middle East; a nuclear agreement with Iran, a Palestinian-Israeli political settlement, a formula to deal with the Arab uprisings, or as is the case now; how to “degrade and defeat” the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Syria at best was a second thought.

From the beginning of the peaceful uprising in the spring of 2011 until today, where what is left of the Syrian state is more or less an Iranian protectorate, the Obama administration’s approaches to the myriad of conflicts in Syria ranged from studied ambiguity, ambivalence, denial, disingenuousness and yes subterfuge. When the Assad regime used violence and sectarianism to militarize the protest movement and labeled it a terrorist-Islamist uprising, President Obama dubbed it then “somebody else’s civil war.” The Obama administration initially kept the political Syrian opposition at arm’s length and then gave them tepid political support. With the security and humanitarian situation deteriorating rapidly and horrendously in Syria, the administration began to provide humanitarian and non-lethal aid to the opposition. President Obama and his White House staff (the young aides he brought with him from Congress who regard him as the Pericles of Washington) refused the recommendations of the adults in his administration; CIA director David Petraeus, and secretaries of state and defense Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels. Later, under mounting pressure and when the depredations of the Syrian regime became impossible to ignore, a modest program of training and equipping a small group of fighters under CIA supervision commenced in Jordan. But, since the Obama administration never believed in a military solution to the conflict between the Assad regime and its opponents, it was clear that the CIA program would remain modest, almost a pro-forma endeavor.

Obama administration’s approaches to the myriad of conflicts in Syria ranged from studied ambiguity, ambivalence, denial, disingenuousness and yes subterfuge.

Hisham Melhem

Throughout the conflict, President Obama used the inevitable divisions and squabbling among some of the Syrian opposition groups that sought Washington’s support to highlight their deficiencies and to distort who they are. President Obama was disingenuous, to say the least, when he kept referring to the moderate opposition with his now infamous labels of: farmers, pharmacists and teachers, ignoring the fact that many of those who took up arms against the Assad regime initially were former members of his armed forces. These were the nationalists who preceded the Islamists who would dominate the later stages of the conflict. Obama’s inaction at that crucial time; that is before the destruction of some of Syria’s famed cities such as Aleppo and Homs, before the emergence of the murderous Nusra Front and ISIS and more importantly before Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah took charge of the counter revolution, that inaction is in part responsible for Syria’s descent to hell.

In a moment, certainly not befitting the memory of Pericles, President Obama at an impromptu press conference on Aug. 19, 2012, issued a warning to Assad that the use of chemical weapons would constitute crossing a red line that “would change my calculus.” Obama stressed that “We’re monitoring that situation very carefully. We have put together a range of contingency plans.” A year later, the Syrian army unleashed a barrage of rockets laden with sarin gas against the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, killing 1,429 people, a third of them children. What followed were an embarrassing series of fumbles and missteps that exposed Obama’s leadership to severe criticism and ridicule. After committing himself publicly to punish the Assad regime militarily and after dispatching naval assets to the Eastern Mediterranean to deliver the pounding, Obama characteristically backtracked saying he would seek congressional approval. The military option died when the Russians saved Obama by committing Assad to discard his chemical arsenal. As David Rothkopf noted in his excellent new book National Insecurity: “The red-line fumble prompted an avalanche of questions from some of Obama’s closest allies and supporters about not only his own leadership but on America’s future role in the world.”

Two disturbing points relevant to Obama’s character and leadership need to be mentioned in this context. The infamous “red-line” warning was a spontaneous verbal arrow shot by Obama against Assad without prior consultations with his national security aides, as was later revealed. The other one is more sinister. For months before the August 2012 chemical weapons atrocity, which was the worst use of chemical weapons since the Iran-Iraq war, the Obama administration knew that Assad had been using chemical weapons against his own people, but on a smaller scale. There were reports about 13 prior chemical attacks.

Unlike the “red-line” warning, President Obama’s decision to call on Assad to “step aside” in August 2011 (it seems that August is the cruelest of months for Obama in the Middle East) was taken after inter-agency deliberations. Some experienced old hands who knew Syria cautioned that the president should not make such a demand unless he has an “or else” option he can resort to when Assad in all likelihood ignored or scuffed at the proposition. One young White House aide close to Obama, and blessed by ignorance of things Syrian, cavalierly dismissed the caution, saying something to the effect that the tsunami called by some “the Arab Spring” that swept Tunisian and Egyptian presidents Bin Ali and Mubarak from power would surely sweep Assad away. The source who related this exchange to me summed up his frustration thus: “stunning naïveté.”
Iran, as a silent partner

The Obama administration’s approach to Syria is heavily influenced by the on-going nuclear negotiations between the United States and Iran. The United States is trying hard not to do anything in Syria that could undermine the Assad regime and negatively impact Iran’s posture in the negotiations, given Tehran’s tremendous strategic, economic and political investment in the survival of the Assad regime.

The Obama administration’s approach to Syria is heavily influenced by the on-going nuclear negotiations between the United States and Iran.

Hisham Melhem

The emergence of ISIS has created some sort of a silent partnership with Iran or a de facto co-habitation in Iraq. President Obama spoke matter-of-factly about “Iran has influence over Shiites, both in Syria and in Iraq, and we do have a shared enemy in ISIL [ISIS].” Obama confirmed again Syria’s status as a second thought when he defined his objectives there by saying: “obviously, our priority is to go after ISIL and so what we have said is that we are not engaging in a military action against the Syrian regime, we are going after ISIL facilities and personnel who are using Syria as a safe haven in service of our strategy in Iraq.” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, in a recent testimony in congress, said that the United States has no military partner on the ground in Syria, as if the United States never dealt with the groups operating under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army. The U.S. plan to train and equip 5,000 Syrian fighters in 12 to 18 months does not reflect the dire needs of the nationalist Syrian rebels who are being attacked simultaneously by the Assad regime and ISIS and Nusra Front. Hegel rebuffed calls by members of the coalition like France and Saudi Arabia to accelerate arming and training the Syrian opposition and establishing a no-fly zone. He counseled time and patience. But Hagel essentially admitted that the United States is willing to co-exist with the Assad regime indefinitely when he said: “You can change Assad today, and that’s not gonna change all the dynamics quickly.” He drove his point home adding: “Who are you going to replace Assad with, and what kind of army will take on ISIL?”

Iran today is the dominant outside power in four Arab capitals; Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and recently Sanaa. The United States is increasingly acquiescing to this new regional strategic balance. President Obama had no qualms stating and accepting the fact that “Iran has influence over Shiites, both in Syria and in Iraq, and we do have a shared enemy in ISIL.” Clearly, Iran has a regional strategy, and in Iraq and Syria it is willing to fight directly or by proxy. It was Iran and its Lebanese Shiite proxy Hezbollah, along with Shiite militias from Iraq that saved the Assad regime in Damascus from imminent collapse. The Assad regime is totally beholden to Iran. Governments in Baghdad – even when the United States had a sizable military force in Iraq – cannot be formed without considerable input from Iran. The enigmatic supreme leader Ali Khamenei keeps getting letters from his America suitor Barack Obama, proposing cooperation. But the old Ayatollah, true to form, keeps bashing the United States and leaving it to perplexed officials and scholars to try to decipher his mood, words, gestures and grunts.

In Lebanon, Iran’s influence is channeled through Hezbollah, which has hijacked the Lebanese state and its brittle institutions. Hezbollah is trying to enlist the weak Lebanese army in its confrontations with ISIS and Nusra Front in the border area and recently there were reports that Hezbollah has begun recruiting economically disenfranchised members of the Christian, Druze and even Sunni communities in Eastern Lebanon, paying them monthly salaries ranging between $1500 and $2500. Hezbollah is brazenly exploiting the genuine fears of many Lebanese that the hordes of ISIS and Nusra Front fighters will sweep into their towns and villages unless they are stopped in Syria. Hezbollah’s narrative, which is being echoed by some of their Christian allies, is that if we did not fight in Syria, ISIS would be rampaging throughout Lebanon. What is missing in this narrative is that it was Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria in the first place that brought the ISIS and Nusra Front’s monsters to Lebanon.

The living embodiment of Iran’s regional ambitions is the cunning and ruthless Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Qods Force, the elite division of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Soleimani, for all intents and purposes, is Iran’s viceroy in its immediate but restive provinces of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. In recent weeks and months, the usually media shy Soleimani has been pictured smiling broadly with Shiite militias and Kurdish Peshmerga units. Watching how Soleimani has been received and treated over the years by his admiring Arab satraps is a testimony to Iran’s rising strategic influence and the collapse of the old order in Baghdad and Damascus. (I am chuckling at remembering the Persian roots of the word satrap).

The living embodiment of Iran’s regional ambitions is the cunning and ruthless Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Qods Force, the elite division of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Hisham Melhem

Iran in Syria

A new report published by the campaign group Naame Shaam, which is funded and led by the Netherland-based Rule of Law Foundation, chronicles in shocking details Iran’s domination of Syria. The report, “Iran in Syria: from an ally of the regime to an occupying force,” provides a wealth of information and many examples and case studies of human rights violations, including war crimes committed in Syria by Iranian-controlled militias.

Naame Shaam, a group of Syrian, Iranian and Lebanese activists headed by Fouad Hamdan, seeks to establish a new narrative about the war in Syria which says essentially that the Iranian Pasdaran and Hezbollah are fighting and leading the major military operations in Syria. Iran’s huge investment in Syria is driven by its strategic interests in maintaining its military supply lines to Hezbollah in Lebanon which serves as Iran’s first line of defense when and if Israel attacks Iran’s nuclear facilities. The total dependence of the Syrian regime on Iran has introduced a fundamental shift in the relationship between the old allies whereby the Iranian regime now acts like an occupying power in the regime-held areas of Syria.

The report delineates ways of bringing possible legal charges of complicity in various crimes committed in Syria against Iranian officials such as Qasem Soleimani, who is considered by the group as the de facto ruler of Syria. Mr. Hamdan, who is currently visiting the United States to discuss the group’s report, told me that the timing of issuing the report is linked to the expiration date of the nuclear talks between Iran and the P-5 plus 1 group.

“We wanted to generate a discussion that could focus on the need to address openly, legally and politically the fundamental problems created by Iran’s hegemony over Syria.”

Unfortunately, the U.S. government is nowhere near this conclusion. Informed sources revealed that Secretary John Kerry has requested recently from his Near East Bureau a review of the Syria conflict with practical recommendations. But there was one proviso: no recommendations that could upset Iran to the point that it could undermine the nuclear talks.


Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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