Barrel bomb attack, Aleppo, December 2013 (photo: Aleppo Media Centre)
I’ve been riveted these days to the refugee crisis in Europe, as have millions of others, and specifically to the tragedy of the Syrians who are landing on the continent en masse. I’ve had tears in my eyes more than once watching the televised interviews of Syrian refugees who have lost everything: their homes, livelihoods, life savings, family and friends dispersed—when not killed—social networks gone… And their country. Lost forever. Syria is shattered. It’s finished and won’t be put back together. The Syrian people are living through a nightmare such that I cannot begin to imagine. (If one has two hours to spare, France 2’s Envoyé Special two days ago was entirely devoted to the refugee crisis and may be viewed here through next Thursday).
One consequence of the surge of Syrian refugees on Europe’s shores has been a proliferation of commentaries trashing President Obama’s non-interventionist Syria policy of the past four years. I’ve been seeing a fair amount of this on social media, with those denouncing Obama’s inaction calling it the biggest stain—that’s the favored word (tache, en français)—on his foreign policy record. The Obama-bashers include not only right-wingers—whom I pay no attention to, as they just want to bash Obama—but also academics, policy intellectuals, and MENA-specialized journalists whom I highly respect—some I know personally—such as him, him, him, and him; also see him and him. These Obama detractors have, needless to say, been arguing for intervention in the Syrian civil war since the outset—arming “moderate” rebel forces (i.e. the Free Syrian Army), establishing a no-fly zone, and/or taking out the Syrian barrel bombers via air power. I was totally opposed to an intervention to August 2013—as I wrote several times here on AWAV—though became more open-minded on the question after the Ba’athist regime’s chemical weapons attack in Ghouta—Obama’s famous “red line.” But Obama, seeing that he did not have the support of Congress or US public opinion—overwhelmingly hostile to another American war in the Middle East—decided against sending in the USAF. If there’s been a valid critique of Obama on Syria, it was his about-face at this moment; he could have acted the “leader” and done what he was thought was right—and not left France in the lurch,which was not nice—though it would have certainly been a fool’s errand in the end: an open-ended conflict with no end game, overwhelming pressure for the use of ground troops—which absolutely no one has advocated (at least openly)—and the US coming up against Russia, Iran, and Hizbullah, not to mention its putative regional allies—Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar—who have been arming non-moderate rebels from the very outset and are going to do what they’re going to do in Syria regardless of US may wish. The US would have been intervening in an exceptionally nasty and complex civil war, and that had already been invested by a number of regional actors who feel they have more at stake in the outcome than the US does itself. Syria is a catastrophe and would have been even if the US had done everything the interventionists had advocated. So despite legitimate criticisms of the president’s decisions, I have little patience for the Obama-bashing of my interventionist associates.
Saying all this better than I ever could is Aaron David Miller, who has an excellent, first-rate, 100% bull’s-eye essay in Foreign Policy, “It’s not Obama’s fault.” The lede: “The inconvenient truths about why you can’t blame the West for what’s happened in Syria.” ADM gets it exactly right on Obama and Syria. No money quotes. Just read the piece. The whole thing.
On Obama’s MENA policy more generally, see Marc Lynch’s excellent article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, “Obama and the Middle East: Rightsizing the U.S. Role.” Lynch has his critiques of Obama’s MENA policy comme moi—e.g. I will fault him for pulling back from Libya after the successful intervention and backing the Saudis in Yemen—but defends it in the main. He begins
Critics of U.S. President Barack Obama’s Middle East strategy often complain that Obama lacks a strategic vision. This is almost exactly wrong. Obama came to office with a conviction that reducing the United States’ massive military and political investment in the Middle East was a vital national security interest in its own right. The occupation of Iraq and the excesses of the war on terrorism had left the United States overextended, especially at a time of economic crisis. “Rightsizing” the United States’ footprint in the region meant not only reducing its material presence but also exercising restraint diplomatically, stepping back and challenging allies to take greater responsibility for their own security. Obama has adhered consistently to this strategy, prioritizing it ruthlessly along the way and firmly resisting efforts to force it off track. This was not a strategy much beloved in Washington or in a region hard-wired for the exercise of American power. But it was a clear and coherent strategy that led Obama to undertake major initiatives on the problems he viewed as rising to the level of core national security interests: Iran’s nuclear weapons program, terrorism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the war in Iraq.
On Syria, Lynch has this
The defining issue of Obama’s tenure will likely be Syria, whose bloodshed, radicalization, and regional destabilization will haunt the Middle East for decades to come. Few policies have been criticized more widely than Obama’s refusal to become militarily involved in support of Syria’s insurgency. It is easy to understand the outrage in the face of the Syrian regime’s unrelenting carnage and daily evils. But the hard reality, which Obama understood, is that none of the popular proposals for intervention would have made things better. Syria was doomed to its horrific civil war almost from the moment President Bashar al-
Assad chose to resort to military repression to stay in power and his opponents chose to take up arms and transform a peaceful uprising into an insurgency. U.S. forces could have been more or less deeply involved in the civil war that followed, but no degree of U.S. military intervention would have solved the problem. Even a large-scale military action would likely have failed, as the fruitless occupation of Iraq so painfully demonstrated.
Supporters of a Syria intervention usually insisted that they did not want U.S. boots on the ground. But the Obama administration was keenly aware of the pressures for escalation that would have followed even a limited operation, because the ideas for a limited U.S. intervention made little sense. Assad was not going to run away at the first sign of NATO bombers, and the limits of airpower have been demonstrated by the air campaign in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State. A no-fly zone might have quickly grounded Assad’s air force, but it would not have protected rebels from mortars or ground actions. Providing antiaircraft weapons to the rebels would have made a tactical difference but would also have posed
a threat to civil aviation. The U.S. military would have had to defend any safe areas that it declared, which could not be done from the air alone.
Arming the opposition, the most popular proposal and one that the United States has fitfully pursued,
was always the least likely to succeed. The Syrian opposition was from the beginning hopelessly fragmented and has become increasingly radicalized as the war has ground on. As early as 2012, huge amounts of money and guns were already flowing to opposition groups from the Gulf countries and Turkey, and covert U.S. operations were already under way. But there were few effective and ideologically acceptable groups that the United States could comfortably arm. Arming the opposition would not have given the United States control over these groups, and it would have inevitably entailed U.S. support for extreme jihadists. Insurgents do insurgent things, and as the Syrian uprising morphed into an insurgency, it became increasingly radicalized and brutal.
Assad’s foreign patrons roughly matched whatever support came to the insurgents. As a result, increased external help for the Syrian rebels led only to a more destructive balance of power, with minor fluctuations in each direction within a broader strategic stalemate. And an empowered opposition was always going to become less willing to compromise, as was an empowered Assad. Short of an outright victory by one side, no balance of power could have compelled negotiations.
In the face of all of this, the Obama administration was wise to resist the slippery slope of intervention and instead to try to corral its allies, shape the conditions for negotiations, and alleviate human suffering. Its worst blunder, the aborted bombing threat of August and September 2013, demonstrated just how easy it was to get drawn in: Obama’s redline on the use of chemical weapons had been mostly a rhetorical sop to give the appearance of toughness, but once articulated, it became costly to abandon. Obama was wise enough to walk away and pay the reputational costs of backing down—but it is telling how near a thing the bombing was.
As with ADM, Marc Lynch says it better than I. C’est tout ce que j’ai à dire.
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