Obama has a ‘heart like railroad steel’ on Syria

For a president who did not want to do ‘stupid stuff’ in foreign policy, his approach to Syria is akin to a case of criminal negligence.

Hisham Melhem

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Former President George W. Bush bequeathed to Barack Obama a precarious and partially broken Arab World. A spectacularly ambitious imperial attempt at remaking the region, beginning in Mesopotamia, crumbled mightily in the inhospitable desert of Iraq.

The dream of planting a Jeffersonian democracy in the land of the two rivers, metamorphosed into an unprecedented sectarian bloodletting. Bush’s freedom agenda, coming after he admitted – correctly – that for more than fifty years U.S. administrations neglected human rights in the Middle East in the name of maintaining stability, the free flow of oil, and striking alliances against the Soviet Union, was ill-conceived, naively pursued, and badly executed.

Bush’s ‘War on Terrorism’ was equally flawed; Al-Qaeda was cut to pieces, but like the mythical Hydra it metastasized and produced the monstrous ‘Islamic State’ (ISIS). But hard as it is to conceive, President Obama will bequeath to his successor a breathtakingly pulverized – figuratively and, yes, physically – region, where in some states like Syria and Iraq whole communities have been uprooted and once great ancient cities have been ransacked, and precious cultural and religious jewels have been destroyed.

The President will be judged as an accomplice in the historic betrayal of the Syrian people, and in the creation of the worst refugee problem in the Middle East in a century.

Hisham Melhem

There are no more streets in some Syrian cities; The Assad regime turned them into shallow valleys of broken concrete, twisted metal and shattered personal artifacts indicating that they were once full of life. If hell has streets, they will surely look like the streets of Syria’s cities today. It shall be written, that the words of a sitting American President in the second decade of the 21st century justifying his inaction and his inane silence in the face of the staggering savagery of the Syrian regime – which repeatedly used chemical weapons, barrel bombs, medieval sieges and starvation against his own people – were stunning in their moral vacuity. The President of the United States will be judged as an accomplice in the historic betrayal of the Syrian people – and, to a lesser extent, the Iraqi and Libyan peoples – and in the creation of the worst refugee problem in the Middle East in a century.

Whose responsibility is it anyway?

Surely, the primary responsibility for the agonies of the peoples of the Middle East lies in the hands of the political and cultural classes that inherited the new political structures erected in modern times by the colonial powers over the remnants of old civilizations.

True, European powers drew artificial boundaries – most countries have such borders – not taking into consideration the wishes of the affected peoples, whose promises were rarely honored. This left behind wounds that have yet to heal. But in subsequent years, the ideologues of Arab Nationalism and Political Islam, the military strongmen who perfected military coups along with some atavistic hereditary rulers maintained the ossified status quo or destroyed nascent and relatively open, diverse societies and representative forms of governance in countries like Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Tunisia.

However, Western meddling and military intervention contributed to the rise of Arab autocracy and despotism. The American invasion of Iraq did not cause sectarianism in that tortured land; that dormant scourge was awakened by years of Ba’athist despotism and Saddam Hussein’s decision to invade Iran in 1980.

But the way the American invasion was conceived and executed accelerated Iraq’s descent into the abyss. Hence America’s partial political and moral responsibility for Iraq’s current torment. President Obama’s eagerness to disengage himself and his administration from Bush’s Iraq burden explains his reticence to push for a residual force after 2011, or to seriously and personally continue to engage Iraqis and help those forces willing to live in a unitary civil state, his deafness to repeated warnings that former Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki’s sectarian policies were deepening the sectarian fissures, makes him a partial owner of Iraq’s chaos.

A red (like in blood) line

In neighboring Syria, decades of military rule, and Ba’athist tyranny that was punctuated by violent upheavals and dark periods of repression, gave way to a tremendous popular and peaceful uprising in the spring of 2011 following those in Tunisia and Egypt.

Assad, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, and the rulers of Iran took the measure of President Obama and they knew that they would get away with murder. And they did.

Hisham Melhem

The Assad regime responded by the application of gradual violence against a civilian movement calling for change, an end to the state of emergency, and political representation. Every qualitative violent escalation on the part of the Syrian regime – the use of the air force, barrel bombs, Scud missiles and chemical weapons – was taken after carefully watching and gaging Washington’s reaction. Assad, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, and the rulers of Iran took the measure of President Obama and they knew that they would get away with murder. And they did, in Syria, Iraq and the Ukraine. In 2011 President Obama cavalierly called on Assad to ‘step aside’ without any serious thoughts to the options available to him after the inevitable ‘go ahead and make me’ that he was warned would come from Assad. During the deliberation that preceded the president’s call on Assad, a very experienced Syria expert cautioned against the move unless the President was willing to back his words with action. One young advisor to the President, his principle wordsmith, dismissed such prudent advice, saying with churlish arrogance betraying his own ignorance of Syria that Assad will soon be swept from power by the winds of the ‘Arab Spring’ just like Presidents Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt.

Unsheathing swords and cocking guns

For a President who defined his political career by words and speeches, Obama acts at times as if his words carry the power of actions. On his own initiative he drew a virtual red line for Assad in 2012, warning that his use of chemical weapons will mean that he has crossed that bloody line, a violation that will force the President to change his calculus.

It was supposed to be Assad’s Rubicon. Once again, the lisping tinhorn dictator of Syria (beautifully described by an astute American diplomat in a cable as the ‘self-proclaimed Pericles of Damascus’) paid no heed to the American President. In one attack in August 2013 against a suburb of Damascus more than 1400 Syrian civilians, many of them children, were killed by chemical weapons. The scorned President huffed and puffed and issued threats backed by dispatching military assets to the Syrian coasts. Then the President took a walk with another young advisor and supposedly saw the folly of delivering on his words, and once again he flinched. On August 31, 2013, another American day that should live in infamy, he informed a stunned world of his (in)decision. Mighty America shrunk on that day. The word of the American President was no longer the coin of the realm. One could imagine Putin’s smug smile, and almost hears Assad’s nervous loud laugh.

The Arabs of olden days used to say that an honorable man should not unsheathe his sword unless he intends to use it. For ordinary people this is unbecoming, like breaking your word or reneging on a promise. For a ruler it could be a fatal mistake. I remember after writing this observation that I was thrilled when I heard former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in a televised interview saying that he warned President Obama about issuing threats if he is not ready to act upon them. Gates reminded the President of a saying in the old West; don’t cock the gun unless you are willing to pull the trigger.

For a president who did not want to do ‘stupid stuff’ in foreign policy, his approach to Syria is akin to a case of criminal negligence.

Hisham Melhem

President Lyndon B. Johnson went to his grave haunted by the ghosts of Vietnam. President George W. Bush will live the rest of his life being tormented by the nightmares of Iraq, even if he claims he is not. President Obama’s catastrophic policies towards Syria will be a blot on his legacy. For a president who did not want to do ‘stupid stuff’ in foreign policy, his approach to Syria is akin to a case of criminal negligence.

A damaged legacy

President Obama’s attitude towards Syria says a lot about how he sees American power and how he sees the Middle East. He seems to be always cognizant of America’s limited power, and what he perceives as its shrinking ability to still do great things on its own. In Libya, he pursued a limited military role, leading from behind and hoping for the best and placing his faith solely in air power. He shirked the tedious political follow-up after the fall of the Libyan dictator, and in fact he admitted to that error.

Early in his first term President Obama wanted to have a new beginning with the Muslim world. That took him to Ankara and Cairo to pursue that path. And he extended an open hand to the hostile regimes in Iran and Syria. He also tried to stop the building of Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territories. Then he was hit in the face by the so-called Arab Spring where he reluctantly withdrew his support for Egypt’s Mubarak. In a few months his Middle East policies began to meet the hard men and the harsher realities of the region. The Iranians maintained their clenched fist; the Assad regime went through the ritual of dialogue but was never serious about changing its ways in Lebanon or the region. Netanyahu stiffed Obama on settlements, and the ill winds of the season of uprisings, plunged Libya in a civil war, and put Egypt under a precarious military rule, and the fires reached Syria. Obama took a second look at the region and realized that he has to invest a huge political and moral capital without guaranteed success… and he flinched.

In his second term, the long arduous road to Persia began to open slowly for a nuclear deal. Ever since, Obama’s eyes were focused on that prize, at the expense of other pressing challenges. Meanwhile, Syria continued to bleed and die slowly. And from the beginning, and even before the Assad regime militarized the uprising, Obama looked at the conflict as someone else’s civil war. He derisively referred to the Syrian opposition as ‘former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth’ (words that could be used to describe the American rebels fighting for independence) before abandoning them to the tender mercies of Assad’s barrel bombs and the depredations of ISIS, when ISIS did not exist as an effective fighting terror army. The President wanted to believe the fiction that there is no military solution to the conflict in Syria, when the Assad regime and his Russian and Iranian sponsors always acted and believed that they will prevail only by the sword. Obama was not even serious when he claimed that the limited programs of training and equipping the moderate Syrian opposition were designed to force the Assad regime and his backers to the negotiating table. Truth be told, President Obama betrayed Syria for the sake of a nuclear deal with Iran. To paraphrase Saint Luke, what good is it for a president to gain a temporary deal, and yet lose his very self?


What was most maddening was the sheer length the president went to when he engaged in the worst use of sophistry during his tenure to misleadingly frame the arguments of his critics by claiming that they want him to ‘invade’ Syria, when in fact not a single serious expert on Syria called for such a thing. This is as deceptive, as his argument that those opposed to the nuclear deal with Iran, are pushing for war with the Islamic Republic. Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry were repeatedly misled by Russia. A few weeks ago, the President himself more than hinted that Russia is seriously willing to engage in a political process that will end in Assad’s departure. General John Allen, the President’s Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, said three weeks ago that the Russians have told Secretary Kerry that they are ‘tired’ of Assad and are willing to move beyond him, that they may be able to lean on Iran to show some flexibility. Instead, both Russia and Iran are doubling down and qualitatively increasing their support for Assad. Russia has sent advisors and Special Forces and Marines to Tartus and Latakia. The U.S. is confirming these reports but it admits that it has no idea about their mission. The Obama administration is reduced to asking Moscow for explanations, for telling the Russians about its ‘deep concerns’ about these military moves. The Obama administration in dealing with the Russians and the Iranians is variously pleading, beseeching, and imploring. Words like these re-inforce the views of President Putin and Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei that the President of the United States is willing to go the extra mile not to jeopardize the chances of implementing the nuclear deal and to secure Russian cooperation regarding Syria.

Hard as it is to believe, but the worst is yet to come in Syria, for the Syrians as well as for the region and beyond.

Hisham Melhem

The worst is yet to come

What we see in Syria today, could be the shape of things to come in other parts of the region. The foreign fighters, and the endless river of refugees are threatening Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey where almost four million Syrian refugees currently and precariously reside. It is a question of time before Lebanon and Jordan implode. Violence has reached Turkey. With each passing day the chances for an acceptable political outcome are shrinking, and the chances of a permanent breakup of Syria and Iraq increase. Hard as it is to believe, but the worst is yet to come in Syria, for the Syrians as well as for the region and beyond. The best and the brightest of Syria are leaving the country to join a Syrian nation of refugees on the move. Most, if not all, will not return. Thus rebuilding Syria – if such a possibility is within reach in the foreseeable future – will become next to impossible.

The world has been shocked and moved in recent weeks at the sight of thousands of mostly Syrians, but also Iraqis and others from the Middle East and South Asia, risking their lives making the dangerous crossing into Europe by sea, and by land, leaving behind victims young and old. The photos of decomposing corpses in a truck, and of children and babies washed up on Turkish and Libyan shores, were a terrible reminder of the early warnings that many of us shouted when the Syrian conflict began; that what happens in Syria will not stay in Syria. Syria’s conflict is now a threat to a region already reeling from multiple crises; Syria’s agony has reached the heart of Europe. But the President of the United States – who, it seems, has a tremendous capacity to remain detached and immune to such agony – remained silent.

Charley Patton, probably the greatest of the Mississippi Delta bluesmen in the pre-war era, bemoaned the cold indifference of the woman he loved, accusing her of having a ‘heart like Railroad steel’

Mr. President, it pains me to say, you have a ‘heart like railroad steel’.
Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for 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 Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. 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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