Abandoning Hope: Obama’s Betrayal of Syria
This attitude of appeasement – here expressed toward the world’s foremost sponsor of terror -- did not begin with the Iran negotiations
This piece is co-authored by Evan Barrett and Tyler Jess Thompson.
President Obama's diplomatic "breakthroughs" are achieved at the cost of Arab lives and sectarian escalation. As they lobby Congress and the American people on the advantages of the nuclear accord with Iran, the President and his allies have returned again and again to a central theme: “It was this deal or another intractable war in the Middle East.”
This attitude of appeasement – here expressed toward the world’s foremost sponsor of terror -- did not begin with the Iran negotiations. The President has always wanted to cast himself as a peacemaker; a central tenet of this undertaking has been to loudly announce his intention to retreat, and then deem it the only responsible path. Whether negotiating an ineffectual chemical weapons handover from the Assad regime, or dealing with Tehran, this is what the President’s reported foreign policy credo, “don’t do stupid s***,” has looked like in practice.
Obama has sought to end our major interventions, hoping that responsible regional players will assert themselves. Popularly, the No Stupid S*** approach reduced troop levels in Afghanistan, aspired for zero combat troops in Iraq, and took a cautious posture towards Middle Eastern conflicts post-Libya. The approach has also broadcasted to all actors in the region that military options are, in-fact, off the table. This amputation of American military influence for its own sake has vastly destabilized the region to the measurable benefit of the Taliban, ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Iran. Wars do not end because America leaves the battlefield.
With his concessions in the Iran deal along with his feckless abandonment of his redline in Syria, Obama has done anything but avoid war. Instead, cynically, he has simply created a measure of distance in the publics’ mind between his own actions and the suffering and violence that still engulf the region. This is about optics, not peace. The President has regularly utilized the straw man that his critics suggest boots on the ground in Syria, a request no Syrian has ever made. To occupy a productive role in the region would involve political risk and ownership of a complicated conflict, and require challenging a freshly courted pariah state. Despite these complexities, he first move towards a real policy could also be a simple one, as simple as shooting down one regime helicopter the next time it tries to drop its deadly payload on civilians of a Damascus suburb, as the regime did on August 16, killing at least 100 civilians. As noted by Ken Roth in the New York Times earlier this Summer, it is Assad's vicious barrel-bombs, and not ISIS, that are the main cause of civilian death and displacement in Syria. To date, there has been no response to demonstrate that America is still capable of some proportional response to ghastly violence that deliberately targets civilians. Instead of leadership, Obama has chosen abdication, and it is paid for in Syrian and Iraqi blood.
Symbolic pageants, made-for-TV toughness
This supposedly circumspect approach has increased violence and instability throughout the Middle East. The most “kinetic” aspect of the President’s approach to ISIS – in Syria only, and not Iraq - is aerial assaults. This “strategy” hits targets of questionable value, and certainly kills civilians who already feel abandoned, or far worse, by their own government and the international community. There is no reliable evidence that the bombings have degraded ISIS or helped to stabilize the conflicts in Iraq and Syria. They are symbolic pageants, made-for-TV toughness. For example, the heaviest U.S. bombing runs were made in the small city of Kobani, a border town that was of dubious importance to ISIS, but for a time became the media centerpiece of America’s confrontation with the Islamic State.
Another element of America’s Syria non-policy is the rightly derided “Train and Equip” (or T&E) program, which Defense Secretary Ashton Carter revealed to congress had only produced 60 graduates. That number is now a bit lower, as al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra kidnapped several of these recruits days after they entered Syria, and more have now been killed fighting the group. The American trainees themselves have also been vocal that they feel abandoned by Washington. Administration officials, who had been warned of this probable outcome by our organizations and others, apparently told journalists they “did not anticipate” attacks on their trainees from Nusra. This seems odd given that Nusra had already successfully routed two U.S.-backed groups, Harakat Hazzam and the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, in Idlib last fall. The U.S. eventually took the face-saving measure of bombing Jabhat al-Nusra as they attacked more U.S. backed fighters, but this will not protect these recruits in the long-term. The few dozen men trained and equipped by the United States have been sent into a war-zone as cannon-fodder, neither equipped nor sufficiently supported to do anything but offer the President more evidence that Syria cannot be saved.
The main enemy of the Syrian people remains Bashar Assad, and this means that even potential allies will meet our trainees with suspicion. After all, one reason the number of T&E recruits is so low is that they are required to make an impossible oath committing to not use American assistance to fight the Assad regime. The New Syrian Force’s inevitable demise may amount to a Syrian Bay of Pigs. The crucial difference, when the rest of these men meet their inevitable and grisly fates, will be that our pawns are Arab-Muslims, and thus less likely to elicit much outrage or media coverage. What are 60 Syrian lives, even dying at our behest, to a President and a public who watched sanguine as hundreds of thousands choked to death on gas, gasped their last breaths crushed beneath rubble, or were raped and tortured in underground prisons?
When Obama ends his presidency, it is easy to imagine him standing on an aircraft carrier, in a strange inversion of our former president’s most idiotic, iconic act, under a banner that reads not “Mission Accomplished” but “No New Wars.” Below the banner, the bodies will stretch further than the eye can see.
Evan Barrett is the Deputy Director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force. He last lived in Syria in 2010.
Tyler Jess Thompson is an international lawyer and the Policy Director of United for a Free Syria.
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