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No Regime Change—and Maybe No Strike At All

Obama isn’t angry at Assad, just disappointed.

1:33 PM, Aug 29, 2013 • By LEE SMITH
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The reason that Obama is incapable of understanding Syria in strategic terms is because he believes that the pieces of the puzzle that make up the larger regional picture are in the wrong places. Yes, Assad is aligned with Iran and backs Hezbollah, which threatens a key American ally Israel. But Assad’s relations are simply tactical, means to an end. It’s wrong to see this as a strategic relationship based on shared principles—above all, a mutual opposition to American influence in the region—for Assad is finally a practical man. Sure, Assad waged war against the United States starting with the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, but it was the wrong war anyway. You can’t really hold that against Assad because America shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

Yes, Damascus international airport became the transit hub of choice for foreign fighters, then bused to the Iraqi border where they crossed over to fight American troops. In 2005 there were a number of clashes between U.S. troops and Syrian soldiers, including a firefight in the summer of that year that left several Syrians dead when Army Rangers tried to close off the border to foreign fighters. In 2007, the Pentagon found that 90% of the suicide bombers in Iraq had come via the Syrian border. Washington repeatedly asked the Syrian government to hand over Abu Musab al-Zarqawi lieutenant Abu Ghadiyeh, and in 2008 finally dispatched American forces to cross the border and kill him. But why blame Assad for trying to spoil the American project in Iraq that would have put another U.S. ally on his border, in addition to Turkey, Jordan and Israel? So what if the violence he exported to Iraq was meant to show Syrians that the Americans’ so-called democracy was nothing but freedom for Arabs to kill each other? It’s unfortunate that Assad wrote his little play within the play with the blood of American soldiers, but objectively speaking, he was simply shoring up his own regime.

Bush’s war in Iraq had put Assad in a tough spot, but Obama was going to give him a fresh start—engage the regime, fill the ambassador’s post, empty since 2005, and relieve sanctions. Whatever Assad had done before came under the previous administration. Yes, Assad supported Hamas, yes he backed Hezbollah, yes he likely ordered the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri and waged a murderous campaign against anti-Syrian regime figures in Lebanon, yes he’d built a secret nuclear weapons facility in the desert, but that was irrelevant. Senator John Kerry, auditioning for the secretary of state job, told him there was a deal to be had with Damascus—they could be wedged away from Iran if given enough incentive. And that would lead to an even bigger deal with Iran.

Talk. The White House’s entire Middle East strategy was premised not on matching means to ends, or the balance of power, or exercising leverage against adversaries, but simply on the power of words, Obama’s words. Who knew that talk was destined to bring the president to this impasse, that warning of his calculus being changed would put him in a place where he would be forced to see if he was really capable of changing his calculus?

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