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Disappointing Friends and Allies

For Syria, Obama’s reelection promises little change and less hope.

Nov 26, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 11 • By LEE SMITH
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For almost a year, America’s allies in the Middle East and Western Europe have believed it was only Obama’s reelection campaign that held the president back from employing more forceful means to topple Bashar al-Assad. After all, ending the bloodshed that has killed over 40,000 people has been the Obama administration’s stated objective since the American president demanded that the Syrian dictator step down in August 2011.

It could only be domestic politics, thought our allies, that prevented Washington from taking the lead on Syria. Surely the Nobel Peace laureate in the White House felt the depths of the humanitarian tragedy unfolding in the heart of the Levant and recognized the strategic opportunity of eliminating Iran’s key Arab ally. Things will change, our allies assumed, after that first week in November. But those allies, to say nothing of the Syrian opposition that Assad has bled for nearly two years, are likely to be disappointed.

Activist with a sign that says Stop the Massacre in Syria!

The reality is that from the beginning of the Syrian revolution in March 2011 until the present the White House has been consistent in its message: The United States is not going to lead on Syria, and that won’t change after elections. By some accounts, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been arguing for a more forward-leaning policy on Syria, but she is on her way out. The next secretary of state is likely to be Susan Rice, who has so far distinguished herself on Syria by pouting at the U.N. that the Russians, one of Assad’s lifelines, are protecting their ally. The other candidate for the top job at Foggy Bottom is longtime Assad advocate Sen. John Kerry.

Outside of senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman,  retiring in January, there has been little enthusiasm on Capitol Hill for moving more forcefully against Assad. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney hardly made it an issue. Presumably, this is because everyone consults the same polls that show the electorate has little taste for any sort of foreign adventure, especially in the Middle East. Obama will therefore be the president of extrication from the region, lowering America’s profi le, rather than advancing vital U.S. interests.

For almost two years, allies have mistaken the White House’s excuses, believing that alibis for inaction were advice. The administration complained that the opposition was too divided. But last week when the fractious Syrian National Council gave way to a unified National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, there was no change in U.S. policy. The State Department promised “nonlethal” assistance, just as it had with previous opposition groups, including the Free Syrian Army.

The White House explains that it is loath to provide the rebels with weapons because of the presence of Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi st units among the armed opposition. But that is an outcome the administration could have anticipated when it disdained arming the Free Syrian Army and left the task to our Gulf allies instead. Qatar has backed Muslim Brotherhood figures everywhere throughout the Arab Spring, and Salafists, including al Qaeda and al Qaeda affiliates, have served as Saudi assets for the last 40 years. The lesson couldn’t be clearer: The absence of American leadership leaves a vacuum that is filled by those whose actions are often inimical to American interests

Last week British prime minister David Cameron tried to spur on the White House by suggesting he might be willing to arm the rebels. As he surely knows, and as the NATO-led coalition in Libya to bring down Qaddafi  made clear, Europe is incapable, even if willing, of doing the heavy lifting. Cameron wants the Americans in front, but if he’s not careful he’ll only manage to drag himself into the middle of a firefi ght with the Syrians, Iranians, and Russians lined up against him.

Cameron might well consult with the Turks, an ally that has paid a steep price for misreading the White House. Early in the uprising, Obama farmed his Syria policy out to Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and thereby hung an albatross around the neck of the world leader to whom he is reportedly closest. Erdogan walked point for the administration, hosting Syrian refugees, including fighters, and calling out Assad at every turn.And yet when the Syrians shot down a Turkish jet, the White House backed Damascus’s story, not Ankara’s. Assad’s artillery fire across the border merely underlined the fact that without American support, Erdogan was nothing but talk.

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