It’s hard not to notice that the Obama administration’s foreign policy is on the skids. Increasingly, the critiques leveled at the administration from both left and right share a common theme: that U.S. foreign policy has become characterized by strategic drift, with serious consequences for American interests abroad.
The list of failures is legion, from a lack of leadership on Russia to faulty assumptions about the feasibility of detente with Iran to a rudderless “pivot” toward Asia — but it is Syria that is perhaps President Obama’s greatest foreign-policy failure to date.
Since the start of the civil war there a little more than three years ago, the White House has chosen to pursue a deliberately minimalist strategy. Its principal achievement — a Russian-brokered deal to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons — has yielded only meager results. The Syrian regime has repeatedly missed deadlines for dismantling its chemical stocks, as it attempts to delay its own disarmament. It is also continuing to use chemical weapons against opposition forces and civilians alike, confident that America won’t do much in response.
Sadly, that assumption has proven largely correct. By and large, the administration’s approach has been defined by inaction. Even recent steps — like the president’s pledge at West Point of stepped-up support for Syria’s disparate opposition groups — are grossly out of proportion to the severity of the conflict, and its impact on security and stability in a region vital to American interests.
In humanitarian terms, Syria has become nothing short of a full-blown catastrophe. The United Nations stopped tallying the death toll in the conflict some time ago, citing difficulties in obtaining accurate data. Others, however, have not, and the statistics they have compiled are truly staggering. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based watchdog group, now estimates the death toll at more than 160,000, with approximately one-third of those killed being civilians. Nearly nine million other Syrians — more than a third of the country’s total population of 23 million — have been displaced, either internally or abroad.
Economically, the Syrian state is in tatters. The country’s gross domestic product has constricted by more than 20 percent annually for the past two years, and is expected to shrink by nearly 9 percent this year. Inflation is likewise rampant, with commodity prices rising by more than 200 percent since mid-2013. Meanwhile, the production of oil — one of the country’s few export commodities — has plummeted, dropping from 370,000 barrels daily in 2010 to just 60,000 a day currently.
Simultaneously, what was once an internal conflict has become an incubator for global jihad. The past three years have seen a steady Islamization of Syria’s fractious opposition, complete with the rise of a constellation of radical religious forces and the birth of a local al Qaeda affiliate. They have also seen an influx of hundreds of foreign fighters from abroad. The latter trend has become such a problem that Western governments have begun collaborating with the Assad regime to get an accurate handle on just how many of their own nationals are fighting on Syria’s killing fields.
All this has diluted international support for comparatively moderate political forces within the Syrian opposition. It also bolsters the legitimacy of the Syrian regime — which, once discredited, is now increasingly seen as the only viable political option by the West, despite its brutality.
Syria’s instability, meanwhile, is fast migrating outward. Its domestic disorder has already penetrated the country’s common frontiers with Turkey and Lebanon, adversely impacting the security of both countries. The conflict is also placing enormous economic and political strain on Syria’s neighbors. According to U.N. estimates, Lebanon will absorb a total of 1.5 million refugees — equivalent to a third of that country’s total population — by the end of this year. Similarly, Turkey has already taken in nearly a million refugees of the Syrian war. Other neighbors, including Jordan, Egypt and Iraq, each now provide safe haven to hundreds of thousands.
It may now be true that, as Mr. Obama’s supporters contend, there are no good solutions to the Syria conflict. It would also be fair to say that America’s strategic options — and its ability to shape events on the ground — were much greater at the outset of the conflict three years ago. If the White House had acted decisively back then, it could have staved off, or at least mitigated, the humanitarian disaster that Syria has become. That it did not has turned into a tragedy for the Syrian people.
Ilan Berman is vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council.