All the Good Syria Options Are Over
President Obama has been criticized for his performance in his latest interview on "60 minutes." The president certainly seemed wrong-footed and was non-responsive to Steve Kroft's questions. But it wasn't just because the president seems tired, impatient, and disengaged. (At one point, Kroft observes, "I know you don't want to talk about this.") It's the fact that he really doesn't have any good answers to give on the obvious failure of his policy in Syria.
So this isn't just about a bad performance in an interview. It's about Obama's basic refusal to recognize failure and take responsibility for a solution. The first step, as they say, is recognizing that you have a problem, and Obama is still on a bender of dithering and indifference. This has even begun to lead to some loud grumbling from foreign policy elites, and a lot of attempts by former administration officials to explain why they really tried to do something, and it's all somebody else's fault.
In fact, as Russia takes over in Syria, the administration is contemplating an open retreat from the whole area. Actually, what they're contemplating is pretending that they have a choice. Putin has already staked his claim in Syria, and there are few good options for driving him back.
There is a definite temptation to say that there were never any good options and that US involvement in the region was always doomed. But there have been at least a half dozen better options we once had—and the Obama administration spent the past six years letting them all go. As the saying goes, they never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
Here are six better options that passed us by.
1. The Iraq Pullout
The Islamic State spans across Syria and Iraq, and its origins are in the failure of President Obama's policy in Iraq, where he prematurely pulled out remaining US troops. The Sunni insurgency in Western Iraq and along the Syrian border—precisely the places the Islamic State has now reclaimed—had been effectively wiped out before Obama took office in 2009. This required the massive effort of the "surge" to accomplish, but it required a relatively small follow-on effort to maintain: continued training of Iraq troops, and a small contingent of US combat troops to provide a backstop for our Iraqi allies. The presence of our troops would have had the additional benefit of keeping Iranian military advisors out, reassuring Sunni tribal leaders who had shifted their loyalty to the Iraqi government, and maintaining our influence with Iraqi leaders.
That was the diplomatic follow-up that was required to maintain stability in Iraq and keep the insurgency down, and that was the administration's next failure.
2. A Stolen Iraqi Election
In 2010, Iraq held an election where the largest number of seats in parliament were won by a secular Sunni-Shiite coalition led by Ayad Allawi, who had proven a friendly leader during the first few years of the war. Allawi should have had the first shot at forming a coalition and becoming the new prime minister, but Nouri al-Maliki conspired to retroactively disqualify some of Allawi's delegates, keeping himself in power.
The Obama administration knew all about this and knew that Iran was behind Maliki's maneuvering, and they made no effort to stop it, despite the objections of US diplomats. Maliki then pursued a sectarian Shiite agenda that quickly alienated Iraq's Sunnis, driving them back to the insurgency.
Again, a very little effort—not even military, but diplomatic—was required to preserve our gains in Iraq. But President Obama was only interested in disengaging and offloading the problem as quickly as possible.
3. The Green Revolution
The Syrian civil war might not have dragged on like this without Iranian backing. Iranian weapons, training, and troops bolster the Assad regime, along with Iranian-controlled Hezbollah troops from Lebanon. Not only did Iranian support make it possible for Assad to hold out against the rebellion; it's also pretty clear that the Iranians wouldn't allow him to give up power if he wanted to. See this report about Iran's colonization of Syria, including the fact that Syrian officials who oppose Iranian control have a tendency to disappear mysteriously.
But Iran might not have been such a malevolent player if 2009's Green Revolution—a vast popular uprising against Iran's Islamic theocracy—had succeeded. But instead of offering support and encouragement for the Green Revolution, President Obama stood back and did nothing. (He said he was "bearing witness," which is a self-congratulatory way of saying the same thing.) The administration was already committed to currying favor with the Iranian regime in the hope of negotiating a deal on nuclear weapons—the bad deal he just got, which is already falling apart.
So the Iranian regime slowly crushed the uprising, leaving them free to use their resources to help Assad do the same.
4. The Arab Spring
The string of uprisings against Arab dictatorships was both an opportunity and a threat. It was an opportunity to replace dictatorships with free societies, who are our more natural allies. It was a threat if secular dictators were replaced by Islamists. This only turned out well in the small country where the Arab Spring began: Tunisia. In Egypt, the people overthrew a secular dictatorship, fell slowly toward an Islamic dictatorship under the Muslim Brotherhood, then ran back into the arms of the old regime. Through all of this, the Obama administration did the same thing they did during the Green Revolution: sat back and watched. In Egypt, they managed to earn the contempt of every faction, being viewed as useless and hostile by the liberals, the Islamists, and the old regime.
But the one place the administration did take action foreshadowed the problem in Syria. In Libya, Obama joined the British and French in an air campaign that toppled the Ghadafi regime. And then they pretty much walked away, doing little to help ensure that our effort produced a stable Libyan government, or to keep out Islamists who took advantage of the chaos of a civil war. The only person trying to do something, Ambassador Chris Stevens, was left without sufficient protection.
This was a preview of the failure in Syria, showing the administration's unwillingness to lead from in front and follow through to keep chaos in the Middle East from turning into a crisis.
5. The JV Team
When ISIS first began to gain territory in Iraq, President Obama notoriously dismissed it as the "JV Team" and ignored panicked requests for assistance from the Iraqi government and from the Kurds.
This was part of a policy of neglect in Iraq. A former Baghdad Bureau Chief for the New York Times explained:
[A]fter 2011 the administration basically ignored the country, and when officials spoke about what was happening there they were often ignorant of the reality. They did not want to see what was really happening because it conflicted with their narrative that they left Iraq in reasonably good shape.... Even after Fallujah fell to ISIS at the end of last year, the administration would push back on stories about Maliki's sectarian tendencies, saying they didn't see it that way. So there was a concerted effort by the administration to not acknowledge the obvious until it became so apparent—with the fall of Mosul—that Iraq was collapsing.
This refusal to accept the reality of a failing policy is what gave ISIS the chance to establish itself and then spread across the border into Syria, completing the Islamist takeover of the rebellion there.
6. The Free Syrian Army and the Red Line
From the beginning of the Syrian rebellion, a lot of us were warning that the longer we stayed on the sidelines, the more likely it would be that Islamists would try to turn the Syrian civil war to their advantage. They thrive in regions of chaos, and they compete for power by offering training, weapons, and foreign shock troops with experience in other insurgencies. The way to keep out the Islamists was to offer more and better support from the West, conditioned on rejection of the Islamists.
The Free Syrian Army, the initial coalition of rebels, made an effort to do this, and they hung on for two and a half years waiting for significant Western support. In 2013, President Obama declared a "red line" for the Assad regime, warning them against the use of chemical weapons—which the regime promptly used, calling Obama's bluff. In response, Obama initially proposed a few symbolic airstrikes that would be, John Kerry assured us, "unbelievably small." Amazingly, Kerry couldn't rally people to support a policy by describing how ineffective it would be. So President Obama accepted a deal with the Syrian regime brokered by its geopolitical sponsor, Vladimir Putin.
This was the final blow for the secular, pro-Western Syrian opposition. They had waited for decisive Western aid which was now, clearly, never going to arrive. So why continue to oppose Syria's Islamists, who were the only ones offering actual help?
The final symbol of this failure is the shutdown of the US training program for moderate rebels, which spent hundreds of millions of dollars to train about 50 troops, who promptly disappeared on the battlefield. Efforts like this don't just fail for no reason. They fail because no one at the highest levels of government wants to take responsibility for them and make sure they succeed. The program always seemed more like a PR exercise, meant to mollify domestic critics by pretending to do something, rather than a serious effort to determine the outcome of the war.
It's no wonder that with the US disengaged, Russia decided it could enter the war and provide the decisive support we weren't giving. Andrew Peek describes how dangerous and unprecedented this is: "Never has Russian military power been allowed to run free in the Middle East. Never. The Russians have always been balanced by someone else: the United States, or Britain, or Turkey, or Iran, the Ottomans or the Safavids, someone who had the means to stop them. Until today."
If you telegraph to the world that you are utterly uninterested in having any kind of impact, eventually they will figure it out, and they will shove you aside as aggressive powers decide to have their way.
I do not think America needs to be involved in every conflict in the world. But Syria is precisely the kind of case where intervention is in our interest. The Obama administration has been allowing a giant new safe haven for a totalitarian Islamic state run by terrorists. This is what happened in Afghanistan in the 1990s—on a much smaller scale than this—and we paid for it with 9/11. We're setting ourselves up for something worse, and the longer the Islamic State is allowed to exist, the greater the danger.
If destroying the Islamic State isn't in our interests, I don't know what is.
I won't bother trying to give advice to the current administration, because a president who passed on all the better options of the past six and a half years, and who is deep in denial about the failure of his policy, isn't going to bother trying.
That doesn't mean America has to give up. It just means that the next president is going to have to start with the bad options he's given and try to claw our way slowly back up to some better ones. We got where we are today by passing up opportunities. But new opportunities will arise, and we need a president who will never miss an opportunity to seize an opportunity.