Obama’s Redline in Syria

March 29, 2016

Roughly a year ago I wrote that President Obama’s decision to refrain from military action in Syria, despite a previously declared “redline”, would best be judged by history. However, the controversy around his decision seems to continue. For example, Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post, with reference to what he had heard from dozens of foreign ministers and senior officials of US allies wrote,
“… Japanese, South Koreans, Singaporeans and even Indians confided that they were convinced that Obama’s failure to use force against the regime of Bashar al-Assad was directly responsible for China’s subsequent burst of aggression in territorial disputes in the East China Sea and South China Sea. Poles, Lithuanians and French drew a line between the back down and Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. As for the Sunni Arabs, Turks and Israelis, it is an article of faith that Obama’s decision accelerated the catastrophe that Syria, and much of the rest of the Middle East, has become. They have an obvious point: Hundreds of thousands are dead, the European Union is in danger of crumbling under an onslaught of refugees, and the Islamic State and Assad remain unvanquished. Who would not call this a bad outcome?” (*)

To me it is just as obvious that countries mentioned in Mr. Diehl’s article look at the Syrian conflict primarily from their own perspective with little regard, if any, for the plight of the Syrian people.

Sunni Arabs, Turks and Iranians need to account for engaging in proxy wars and their total failure to find a regional solution to the problem. Their UN and Obama bashing leaders also need to account for the total invisibility of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) whose principal objectives they had collectively defined as “enhancing and consolidating the bonds of fraternity and solidarity among Member States… non-interference in the domestic affairs… respecting sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of each Member State…” And, PM Netanyahu perhaps needs to think about making an effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rather than constantly lecturing the world about what is right and what is wrong.

In his address to the UN General Assembly on September 24, 2013 President Obama said, “I know there are those who have been frustrated by our unwillingness to use our military might to depose Assad, and I believe that a failure to do so indicates a weakening of America’s resolve in the region… the United States is chastised for meddling in the region, and accused of having a hand in all manner of conspiracy; at the same time, the United States is blamed for failing to de enough to solve the region’s problems, and for showing indifference toward suffering Muslim populations…” Sadly, this happens to be the case.

Looking further back, one may say that 9:11 witnessed an outburst of sympathy for the US with the exception of some marginal radical groups. Unfortunately, the Bush administration failed to seize the opportunity. On the contrary, it adopted the “with us or against us” policy regarding the invasion of Iraq and led to divisions even among the traditional allies of Washington.

During the joint press conference with Secretary Kerry in Moscow on March 24, Foreign Minister Lavrov mentioned how some Afghan groups later metamorphosed into al-Qaida. He mentioned ISIL emerging in Iraq in the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq. And, he referred to Libya “which has become a black hole from where the militants and arms were spreading to dozens of other countries, including the Sub-Saharan Africa countries, saying nothing about the adjacent countries…”

As Jeffrey Goldberg highlighted in the Atlantic (“The Obama Doctrine”), at an anti-war rally on October 22, 2002 Illinois Senator Barack Obama said, “I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda…”

He was right about Iraq, and honest and self-confident to admit the failure of the Libya intervention. And despite his earlier promises, the US will not be able to withdraw troops from Afghanistan before he leaves the White House. All three cases have unmistakably shown that external military interventions do not serve the twin purposes of nation-building and promoting democracy. Turkey went further than other regional countries in this respect because of her proximity to and long history with Europe which finally inspired the reforms undertaken by Atatürk. In other words, democracy cannot be air-dropped. And today, even Turkey’s experience with democracy faces an uncertain future.

In May 2013 President Obama said that America could not remain on “a perpetual war-time footing.” Indeed, during the last century, brief military interventions aside, the US has gone to war seven times. These are the First and Second World Wars, the wars in Korea and Vietnam, the two Gulf wars and the war in Afghanistan. The intervention in Afghanistan has outlasted the Vietnam war. The war in Iraq lasted nine years and now American troops are back. Thus, when Pew Research Center Poll conducted a poll in April 2014, just 30% of Americans favored sending arms and military supplies to the Ukraine government while 62% were opposed.

As for the Far East, it is true that China has achieved remarkable economic progress and is investing more in military hardware. It may also be true that China is flexing muscles in disputed maritime areas. But China does not have a record of external military interventions. So, the better response to China’s growing power is not containment but engagement to promote a better world order through effective multilateralism since no global power is capable of decisive military interventions on the periphery of the other two. Arguing that bombing of targets in Syria would have made US allies in Southeast Asia safer is implausible.

In the final analysis, Syria’s chemical weapons have been eliminated without American military action. Russian intervention in Syria has led to a “cessation of hostilities” which, by and large, appears to have reduced violence providing an opportunity for political transition which Assad and the opposition must seize. ISIL seems to be losing ground in Syria and Iraq. In brief, US and Russia now have a better chance of containing if not ending this conflict. Of course, some would continue to say that this would give Russia, under the leadership of a “former KGB-operative”, an important role in the Middle East as global problem solver; recognize Moscow as a heavyweight in the international arena and consequently diminish US’ standing. But Russia is not just about President Putin and the KGB. With her rich history of suffering and resilience, with her music, art, literature, technical achievements, natural resources, huge territory between Europe, China and the Pacific Ocean and last but not least military power, Russia is a global player. And, if Russia can be persuaded to assume a more constructive role in disputes she is involved, to display her peace building capacity and be engaged in cooperation to bring some semblance of stability to the Middle East without another US military intervention, so much the better for everybody. Giving due recognition to Russia for such an achievement would not be a high price to pay.

In interviews with Jeffrey Goldberg, President Obama has fully explained his rationale for not taking military action against the Assad regime. This was published in the April 2016 issue of the Atlantic. The foregoing only aims to show that not everybody on the Middle East street is critical of his decision not to resort to force in Syria.
(*) Jackson Diehl, “The costs of Obama’s Syria policy are apparent to everyone but him”, March 20, 1016.

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