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It's Time to Declare Obama's Syria Policy a Total Fiasco

AFP/Getty Images

The Obama administration’s foreign policy toward Syria is looking like an unmitigated disaster. Just look at the conference in Switzerland, dubbed Geneva II. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad will remain in power and commit atrocities on his own people—over 125,000 Syrians have died already. The rebel leadership will remain an unsavory mix of ex-Baathist and Islamists and are almost as likely to be fighting each other as Assad. And the United States, which since 1947 has been the principal outside power in the region, is not going to be able to do anything about it except convene conferences and propose solutions that none of the parties is willing to accept.

The key to a successful foreign policy is matching means to ends: choosing ends that are achievable, and the means to achieve them. In its policy toward Syria, the Obama administration has been committed since August 2011 to removing al-Assad from power. But the Obama administration never adopted the means to achieve this end. Initially, it appears to have believed on the basis of what had happened earlier in Egypt and Tunisia that Assad would be successfully overthrown. That was an overestimation, generally, of the Arab Spring, as subsequent events in Egypt would reveal; but it also reflected a misunderstanding of Syria, where the military was bound to Assad by indissoluble ethnic ties. As political scientist Joshua Landis has pointed out, there were individual defections, but divisions did not join the rebellion. The army has stayed intact and used its superior weaponry to repel the opposition.

The administration next tried negotiating a resolution to the conflict through the United Nations. In Geneva in June 2012, the United States, Russia, the European Union, Turkey, and various Arab countries agreed to the terms for ending the conflict, which was spelled out in a communiqué calling for a transition government. But as the Russians and Chinese insisted, the communiqué didn’t specifically rule out Assad remaining in power. And the Syrian government and opposition were not present at the talks, nor was Iran, the chief backer of the Assad regime. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared to have given up on the Geneva communiqué. That summer, she, CIA chief David Petraeus, and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta proposed to the White House that it arm the rebels, but Obama turned down the plan. According to former administration officials I spoke with, Obama never wanted to intervene militarily in Syria.

Obama’s reluctance to intervene became evident last year when after having warned the Syrian government that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that would prompt military action, Obama failed to act on revelations in March that Syria had used these weapons in Northern Syria. Obama’s hand was finally forced in August by a large-scale assault on the Damascus suburbs, but even then he held back. He insisted that retaliation be limited to Assad’s chemical weapons facilities and, after Britain balked at joining the American attack, said he would not bomb without Congressional approval. Obama was bailed out of what would have been a complete fiasco by Russia accepting on Assad’s behalf an offer inadvertently made by Secretary of State John Kerry to withdraw the military threat if Assad were to give up his chemical arsenal.

That ended the American threat, but it also left Assad’s military completely intact, since it had not depended on chemical attacks. It demoralized the rebel forces, which had expected that United States (as Kerry had hinted) would attempt not only to knock out Assad’s chemical weaponry, but to degrade his military. Subsequently, the opposition forces split between the Syrian National Coalition, which the administration has backed, and the Islamic Front and other Islamist groups. Both sides controlled about the same number of fighters. That fall, too, the National Coalition and some Syrian Islamist groups battled an Islamist group originally based in Iraq over control of towns in the north. As things stood at the end of this year, Assad controlled the populous south and west and the rebels parts of the north and east.

To resolve the conflict, the Obama administration once again resorted to diplomacy. It convinced the Russians to join in convening Geneva II. At an opening session in Montreux on January 22, Kerry reiterated the American aim of removing Assad. “We really need to deal with reality,” Kerry said, “There is no way—no way possible in the imagination—that the man who has led the brutal response to his own people could regain the legitimacy to govern.” But the reality was that Assad’s government was represented at the conference. Of the rebel groups, only the Syrian National Coalition attended. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon initially invited Iran to attend—which Kerry had hinted would be acceptable—but when the Saudis and the Syrian opposition threatened to walk, Kerry demanded that the Ban Ki-moon rescind the invitation on the grounds that the Iranians had not accepted the ambiguously worded Geneva communiqué.

The conference, as constituted, is no position to decide anything, and certainly in no position to demand Assad’s ouster. At best, what it can do is agree to local ceasefires and the admission of the Red Cross to war-torn areas, but, as the rebels have already complained, Assad will be able to set the terms of these ceasefires. The United States is further from achieving its original end than it was in August 2011. American policy is grounded in fantasy rather than reality.

Could it have been different? Let me make some very tentative observations. First, it is obvious that Assad would never have agreed to step down or to share power unless he faced military defeat, and that would only have come from American intervention. Landis observes that Assad “and his generals were convinced that they could survive so long as F-16s did not appear over the Damascus horizon.” So for the original policy to succeed, the United States would have had to be prepared at least to arm the rebels–-and perhaps to establish a no-fly zone—against Assad. It was not, and so the policy was bound to fail. Secondly, if the United States had intervened militarily at all, the time to have done so was in 2011 or at latest the summer of 2012. After that the rebel forces become unsavory and incapable of sharing power among themselves, let alone with Assad’s loyalists. After that, too, the level of atrocity perpetrated by Assad—evident on the eve of the conference by the release of horrible torture photos—rose to the point where any national reconciliation has become extraordinarily difficulty.

Third, if the U.S. was to intervene militarily in the conflict in those years, it probably would have had to aim at something less than total regime change—at a government that still included Assad, but where he was hemmed in by new constitutional guarantees and by international agreements. That might have been negotiable in 2011 or early 2012, but after that, Iran and Hezbollah entered the fray and the civil war became a proxy war; and Assad himself became a war criminal. What might have succeeded, in other words,  is more ambitious means but less ambitious ends. Instead, the Obama administration did exactly the opposite: It adopted milquetoast means to achieve the scorched-earth ends, and it predictably failed miserably. The United States, and even more so the Syrian people, now have to live and die with that failure.