Even after two years, President Obama’s Syria policy remains hard to understand. On the one hand, he talks about isolating Bashar Assad’s Syrian regime and drawing “red lines” on its use of chemical weapons. On the other, he accedes to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s demand for another regional conference that surely will give Mr. Assad a longer lease on life.
Calling for Mr. Assad’s ouster while teaming up with those who want to save him is, at the very least, illogical.
Perhaps that master of logic, Sherlock Holmes, can help solve the mystery. As he famously said, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
So what does Mr. Obama claim to be his goal? In August 2011, he said the “time has come for [Mr. Assad] to step aside.” One year later, he declared, “We have been very clear to the Assad regime that a red line for us is, we start seeing a whole bunch of [chemical] weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my equation.”
Unfortunately, when Mr. Obama says he wants to make something “very clear,” it usually is anything but. The only thing clear to me is that he is unclear about what he wants to do about Syria. If he wants Mr. Assad gone, why has he dithered for years in taking concrete steps that could make that happen? He opposes direct military intervention and providing lethal assistance to the rebels, and he has been passive at best in trying to shape the rebel opposition. Yet he throws down a gauntlet on chemical weapons, which only raises the stakes — and the confusion — about his goals.
He seems to want to have it both ways: pretending to be tough while avoiding any risky decisions for which he would be held accountable.
Perhaps a clue to the mystery can be found in an opinion poll by Rasmussen Reports. Despite the Boston Marathon terrorist bombings, only 10 percent of American voters say national security issues are their top concern. They are more worried about the economy and how the government is handling fiscal matters. Such polling could lead Mr. Obama to conclude that Americans will give him a pass on Syria. He already is reeling under heavy criticism over Benghazi, and the last thing he may want to do is take any action that could further endanger what he cares about most — namely, his domestic political agenda.
Yet another clue is his decision to hold another regional conference on Syria. It seems to be a desperate move. The conference has been a long-standing demand of the Russians. Mr. Obama may think the conference will bring Moscow onboard to force Mr. Assad into a settlement, thus removing this thorny problem from his agenda.
If that is the case, he had better think again. Mr. Assad has fought the rebels to a near standstill. This conference will only further contribute to the stalemate, prolonging the bloody struggle even more. For the Russians, the purpose of the conference is to eliminate an excuse for the U.S. to provide arms and military assistance to the rebels, a goal they appear to share with Mr. Obama.
Sherlock Holmes’ brand of deduction often is described as “If p, then q,” where “p” represents some observed evidence and “q” is what the evidence indicates. In Syria’s case, “q” is that Mr. Obama does not want to engage. He doesn’t know what to do, so it’s best to do nothing.
That decision likely will produce more carnage and, possibly, Mr. Assad’s survival. Even though that is not an outcome Mr. Obama desires, it is one for which he might not be held responsible — at least by his own party and much of the press.
Solving the strange case of Mr. Obama’s Syria policy may be elementary, but its implications are not, at least as far as peace in the Middle East is concerned.
• Kim R. Holmes, a former assistant secretary of state, is a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org). Follow him on Twitter @kimsmithholmes.