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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.

At the end of 2013, that is the picture. The chemical weapons deal gave Assad license to continue killing by any means other than chemical weapons, and he is using it. A vicious bombardment of Aleppo began December 15 and continued day after day. Helicopters drop “barrel bombs” filled with explosives, nails, and other shrapnel designed to kill indiscriminately. “The medics say they are removing people in parts; they aren’t sure how many there are,” came the report from the Aleppo Media Center. “There was a big massacre today. We were treating shrapnel wounds, deep abdominal and brain injuries. I just lost count of the amputations,” a doctor told CNN two days before Christmas. Three days before New Year’s, a helicopter dropped a barrel bomb on a vegetable market, killing two dozen more people. The American strike that President Obama decided against at the last minute could have destroyed some of Assad’s helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, damaged their bases, degraded their ability to conduct such attacks, and given Assad a firm and credible warning to stop using airpower against civilian targets.

The Obama administration has a variety of excuses for its inaction. What can we do, after all? Would a jihadist victory be better than Assad? Small but growing elements of the foreign policy establishment are now echoing the line that we can’t after all allow al Qaeda to take over, so perhaps Assad is a necessary evil. But there were obvious things to do, and the administration should not now be allowed to escape condemnation for its feckless refusal to make choices. If today’s choices are worse than yesterday’s, or those available in 2012 and most of 2013, that is because Obama decided to do nothing. When I testified to the House Armed Services Committee in July 2013, I urged a onetime strike at Assad’s air assets and noted that Secretary Kerry was in favor of the same move: Cripple Assad’s small air force and you tilt the battlefield militarily, politically, and psychologically. Remember Kerry’s speech of August 30? 

Instead of being tucked safely in their beds at home, we saw rows of children lying side by side, sprawled on a hospital floor, all of them dead from Assad’s gas, and surrounded by parents and grandparents who had suffered the same fate. The United States government now knows that at least 1,429 Syrians were killed in this attack, including at least 426 children. Even the first responders​—​the doctors, nurses, and medics who tried to save them​—​they became victims themselves. We saw them gasping for air, terrified that their own lives were in danger. This is the indiscriminate, inconceivable horror of chemical weapons. This is what Assad did to his own people. .  .  .

[T]he primary question is really no longer, what do we know? The question is what are we​—​we collectively​—​what are we in the world going to do about it? As previous storms in history have gathered, when unspeakable crimes were within our power to stop them, we have been warned against the temptations of looking the other way. History is full of leaders who have warned against inaction, indifference, and especially against silence when it mattered most. Our choices then in history had great consequences, and our choice today has great consequences. .  .  .

[I]t matters deeply to the credibility and the future interests of the United States of America and our allies. It matters because a lot of other countries whose policies challenge these international norms are watching. They are watching. They want to see whether the United States and our friends mean what we say. It is directly related to our credibility and whether countries still believe the United States when it says something. They are watching to see if Syria can get away with it because then maybe they too can put the world at greater risk. And make no mistake. In an increasingly complicated world of sectarian and religious extremist violence, what we choose to do​—​or not do​—​matters in real ways to our own security. Some cite the risk of doing things. We need to ask what is the risk of doing nothing?

Great speech. Wrong president.

Today the war crimes continue, but poor Assad is restricted to using conventional weapons to murder Syrians. In the Balkan wars of the 1990s, it is estimated that a total of 130,000 died. The war in Syria long ago passed that point, and the numbers continue to rise.

The American reaction is pathetic. Here is what the White House spokesman said in response to the murders and “barrel bombs” in Aleppo at year’s end:

The United States condemns the ongoing air assault by Syrian government forces on civilians, including the indiscriminate use of SCUD missiles and barrel bombs in and around Aleppo over the last week. The attacks over the weekend killed more than 300 people, many of them children. The Syrian government must respect its obligations under international humanitarian law to protect the civilian population. The Syrian government must fulfill its November commitment to do more to facilitate the safe and unhindered delivery of humanitarian assistance, so that millions of Syrian men, women, and children have access to urgently needed services. To bring the suffering of the Syrian people to an end, it is imperative that Syrians reach a comprehensive and durable political solution to end the crisis in Syria. The United States remains committed to advancing a political settlement to help end the bloodshed in Syria.

So Assad “must” do this and that​—​or else what will the United States do? Well, we “remain committed to advancing a political settlement.” In the face of these crimes the United States will not remain silent, you see; we’ll put out a statement.

Long forgotten, above all by the administration, is the Obama Presidential Directive of 2011 that said

Preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States. Our security is affected when masses of civilians are slaughtered, refugees flow across borders, and murderers wreak havoc on regional stability and livelihoods. America’s reputation suffers, and our ability to bring about change is constrained, when we are perceived as idle in the face of mass atrocities and genocide.

Obama established the “Atrocities Prevention Board” in a brave speech at the Holocaust Museum in 2012, where he stated

We must tell our children. But more than that, we must teach them. Because remembrance without resolve is a hollow gesture. Awareness without action changes nothing. .  .  . “Never again” is a challenge to nations. It’s a bitter truth​—​too often, the world has failed to prevent the killing of innocents on a massive scale. And we are haunted by the atrocities that we did not stop and the lives we did not save.

As the year ended Obama was golfing in Hawaii; evidence that he was haunted is difficult to come by.

And where are we on the jihadist front? Last summer the Economist reported, “The rate at which foreign fighters, both seasoned jihadists and inexperienced young men, have headed for Syria eclipses that of recent conflicts in Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen.” It is now estimated that there are 10,000 jihadists fighting in Syria (some would say several thousand more), of whom perhaps 1,000 or 2,000 are Western​—​mainly from Europe. This large body of jihadists surpasses the number who ever gathered in Afghanistan, and of course here they are not near the border of Pakistan but on the borders of Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq. When the Western jihadists go “home,” it will not be to Islamabad or Riyadh but to Amsterdam and Paris and Madrid, and perhaps to New York and Washington, or Los Angeles and Chicago. The implications keep Western security officials up at night. 

“America’s reputation suffers,” Obama said, and he is right. Certainly our inaction in Syria has been noted in Jerusalem, where our resolve to stop the Iranian nuclear weapons program is the critical concern. When Moscow judges what we will do as Russia presses Ukraine, and when Beijing estimates the American reaction to a new “air defense zone” in the East China Sea, the gap between words and actions in Syria must be high on the agenda.

But the reputation that will in the end suffer most is Obama’s. He is presiding over a humanitarian disaster where war crimes and atrocities occur each day and he responds with speeches. He is conceding a strategic victory to Iran and Hezbollah, who have decided to win in Syria and have rejected the administration line that “there is no military solution.” He has weakened our own alliances, for example dragging British prime minister David Cameron into a dispiriting defeat in the House of Commons when he rushed to join a military strike that Obama soon abandoned. He is endangering our safety by allowing jihadists to turn Syria into their world center of activity. And over the next three years, he is likely to reap what he has sowed. The problem is, so will we.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

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