The Magazine

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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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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