Over the last five years, Syria has been descending into a hell on Earth. Over the last four months, the lowest depths of the inferno have been on display in Aleppo, an ancient city, once among the most diverse and dynamic in the Middle East. On Friday, in the final press conference of his presidency, Barack Obama addressed this still-unfolding humanitarian and strategic catastrophe.
“So with respect to Syria,” he said, “what I have consistently done is taken the best course that I can to try to end the civil war while having also to take into account the long-term national security interests of the United States.”
An estimated 500,000 dead, 11 million displaced, millions more living in fear, sorrow and pitiful poverty, Iranian forces backed by Russian forces occupying the heart of the Arab world — yet no-drama Mr. Obama remains so casual, so confident that the decisions he’s made were “the best” and, what’s more, that he made them “consistently.” Is refusing to change one’s mind as conditions worsen and policies fail really a virtue?
To bolster his case, the president emphasized that he has spent lots of time — “if you tallied it up, days and weeks” — attending meetings on Syria. “We went through every option in painful detail with maps,” he said, “and we had our military and we had our aid agencies and we had our diplomatic teams, and sometimes, we’d bring in outsiders who were critics of ours.” Imagine that: painful detail, maps, aid agencies, even critical outsiders.
Count me among those not convinced. In 2011, during that hopeful moment known as the Arab Spring, peaceful protesters took to the streets of Damascus. The dynastic dictator Bashar Assad responded brutally. Before long, a civil war was ignited.
Mr. Obama’s top advisers recommended assisting non-Islamist and nationalist rebels — not with the proverbial boots on the proverbial ground but with secure communications devices, money, weapons and training. Mr. Obama rejected that advice. He had done the math: Mr. Assad, a member of the Alawite minority, hadn’t enough loyal troops to prevail against Syria’s insurgent Sunni majority. So the fall of the Assad regime had to be both inevitable and imminent.
What that failed to take into account: Iran’s theocrats would send in foreign Shia fighters, including those of Hezbollah, their Lebanese proxy, all under the leadership of their Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Vladimir Putin also would deploy forces in support of the Assad regime. We can surmise his reasons: to have a Mediterranean port for his navy; to re-establish Russia’s influence in the Middle East; to show the world that, unlike Mr. Obama, he does not abandon his friends; to diminish American credibility and prestige.
Mr. Obama’s response was, as it so often is, mainly rhetorical. He warned Mr. Putin that he was stepping into a quagmire. He proclaimed, as so he often does, that there can be “no military solution.”
The Russian president, a product of the KGB rather than the faculty lounge, knew that was nonsense. In the Middle East, the law of the jungle trumps international law every time.
Having accused President George W. Bush of overreach, Mr. Obama adopted a policy that might be called underreach. He decided not to enforce the “red line” he had declared against Mr. Assad’s use of chemical weapons. He decided not to eliminate Mr. Assad’s air power, which would have ended the barrel-bombing of civilians. He wasn’t even willing to help establish “safe zones” where innocent Syrians might stand a chance to defend themselves.
I know: Mr. Obama saw his mission as ending wars and certainly not risking additional American entanglements. And he is among those who believe that the projection of American power generally does more harm than good.
Not mutually exclusive is the theory that he had a specific goal in mind: to bring Iran’s rulers into a strategic partnership with the United States. To achieve that, he had to demonstrate that he respected what he has called their “equities” in Syria. Were he to take action against Mr. Assad, the Islamic republic’s envoys might walk away from the table where they were negotiating the nuclear weapons deal Mr. Obama envisioned as his great foreign policy legacy.
The president has been nothing if not “consistent” in his pursuit of detente with Iran’s Islamic revolutionaries. In all likelihood, that is what explains his decision, just after taking office, to turn a blind eye to the clerical regime’s ruthless repression of the Green Movement that took to the streets of Iranian cities following a rigged presidential election in 2009.
History will record that these efforts failed. Nixon went to China. Mr. Obama will not be going to Iran — or to Syria, which Iran intends to incorporate into its version of a caliphate (which Shia call an “imamate”).
“Aleppo,” U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power said last week at the U.N., “will join the ranks of those events in world history that define modern evil, that stain our conscience decades later. Halabja, Rwanda, Srebrenica, and, now, Aleppo. To the Assad regime, Russia, and Iran, your forces and proxies are carrying out these crimes.”
She went on to ask: “Are you truly incapable of shame? Is there literally nothing that can shame you? Is there no act of barbarism against civilians, no execution of a child that gets under your skin?”
Would it be unfair to suggest that the answers to these questions should have been apparent to her and the president years ago? Had that been the case, perhaps they would have formulated different policies and implemented a different course of action. Or perhaps not.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.