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Haunted by Syria?

President Obama is unmoved by the atrocities on his watch

Jan 13, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 17 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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When the history of the Obama administration is written, there will be a long and damaging chapter on its immense humanitarian and strategic failure in Syria. With three years of Obama yet to come, we have not even seen the full humanitarian disaster play out​—​nor have we yet confronted the dangers that are arising there from the vast jihadist presence.

A man cradles a dead child among the victims of a gas attack in Syria.

A man cradles a dead child among the victims of a gas attack in Syria.

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There are hard choices to be made when strategic and humanitarian interests diverge or even conflict. In Syria, they combined: The United States had an obvious interest in seeing the Assad regime replaced, and two and a half years ago Obama said Assad must go. After all, this was an enemy regime, tied to Iran and Hezbollah and brutal in its repression of all dissent, and it had a good deal of American blood on its hands because it had facilitated the travel of jihadists to Iraq to kill Americans in the previous decade. Assad’s departure would be a grave setback to Iran and Hezbollah and a great boon to the people of Syria, who would have a chance to establish a decent government. The population is 74 percent Sunni, so Assad as an Alawite was always going to have to rule by the gun; a Sunni-led government might be able to rely on the ballot box or at least on a less repressive system.

As part of the “Arab Spring,” a revolt had started​—​and Assad had tried to crush it by killing uninvolved civilians and peaceful protesters. Unlike Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt, who gave up power, Assad had not flinched: His reaction was to crush the opposition with any force necessary. He used chemical weapons, air attacks on civilian neighborhoods, artillery assaults on medical facilities and dense civilian housing. His method of dealing with opposition was mass murder, and this was evident early. So the toll mounted, and today there are probably 200,000 dead​—​some estimates are double that​—​and one fourth of the population is homeless, now refugees or displaced persons.

Assad’s murders gave rise to an armed opposition, and there was some pressure to help it get organized. Assad, not the people of Syria, had chosen blood, and his killings were aided by Iran and Hezbollah​—​with arms supplied by Russia. America’s Gulf Arab allies (primarily Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE) and Turkey wanted Assad out and saw the battle for Syria as a critical security issue for the entire region. So did the French. So did key Obama administration officials: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then her successor John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates urged support for the rebels. The danger was not just that they would lose, but that they would become radicalized unless there were a serious effort to train and arm nonjihadist forces. 

Without American leadership, the Arabs and Turks would be unable to put together a coherent program and might back groups we viewed as extreme and dangerous, and tied to al Qaeda. With American leadership, especially early on, we could have organized a coherent international effort to back nonjihadist Sunni rebels, make them stronger than their rivals, and enable them to fight against the regime and against al Qaeda-linked jihadists. Indeed the vacuum that sucked in jihadists from all over the world would never have been created. Nor is this 20-20 hindsight; there were plenty of people inside and outside the administration urging the more active policy for the United States.

But no argument could persuade the president. Advice and warnings from his subordinates fell on deaf ears, as the jihadist groups grew in power. Even the multiple uses of chemical weapons by Assad led to nothing, or worse than nothing. In fact they led to an Obama threat​—​his famous “red line”​—​and then his eleventh-hour reversal on a decision to strike some of Assad’s assets by way of punishment and deterrence. Instead, Obama fumbled and grasped the helping hand of Vladimir Putin, who concocted a chemical weapons deal between Obama and Assad. Under it, Assad declares where his stocks are, and the “international community” works with him to remove them. Of course we have no idea if he is declaring 10 or 40 or 70 percent of those stocks, and no one in the region believes it is 100 percent. Meanwhile Assad, rather than the people of Syria whom he is murdering in large numbers, is now our partner.

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