With all of the past year’s foreign policy headlines—the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the growth of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq, and the Iranian nuclear deal—the civil war in Syria often receives little more than a passing reference in the news media and the U.S. presidential debates. Yet the conflict there marks one of the greatest foreign policy failures of the Obama administration.
The conflict began in March 2011. Faced with legions of mostly peaceful protestors during the Arab Spring, the Syrian government under the leadership of Bashar al-Assad cracked down severely, sparking a rebellion and the beginning of one of the greatest humanitarian crises of the modern age. Over 260,000 people—nearly a third of them non-combatant civilians—have been killed. And according to World Vision, a humanitarian organization focused upon the well-being of children around the world, the conflict has produced over 4 million refugees and has left millions of others who still remain in Syria without homes or the basic necessities of life.
As I prepared to write this article, refreshing my memory about the Syrian conflict, I could not help but notice the unmistakable contrast between the tough talk of the Obama administration and the frozen inaction which has characterized American involvement in Syria throughout this human rights crisis. The early months of the conflict saw the United States and other western powers repeatedly condemn the Assad regime’s heavy-handed treatment of political dissenters and, as the conflict went on, of innocent civilians, yet the U.S. appeared to do little else. With the exception of a set of middling economic sanctions imposed upon Mr. Assad and several top Syrian government officials in May 2011, the Obama administration did little to contain the growing catastrophe. Even as Iran, a long-time ally of Mr. Assad’s Syria, began supplying the regime with the resources it needed to continue brutalizing its own people, nothing was done to help stabilize the country.
Then came President Obama’s infamous “red line” pronouncement. After Mr. Assad threatened to use chemical and biological weapons in the event of foreign intervention, Obama leveled an ultimatum of his own at the Syrian regime:
A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.
President Barack Obama – Aug. 2012
Less than a year after this pronouncement, “strong evidence” emerged of chemical weapons attacks by government forces in Syria, including one in the city of Damascus which slaughtered over a thousand people. No military action was forthcoming from the U.S. or its allies. Instead, an agreement brokered by Russia allowed the Assad regime to surrender its chemical weapons to international authorities without repercussions.
It took the development of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to move the White House to concrete action. Following the execution of James Foley, an American journalist, by Islamic State militants, the U.S. brought together a coalition of countries to create a strategy to battle the nascent terror group. In late 2014, news emerged that the United States had begun arming and training certain rebel groups, as well as launching limited airstrikes against ISIS forces in conjunction with several Arab allies.
This escalation of U.S. involvement, which continues today, was ill-timed. After years of all-out war, multiple militias, drawing upon a wide array of ideological, political, and sectarian loyalties, now occupy the Syrian landscape. A 2013 article in The Telegraph identified “as many as 1,000” distinct bands of rebels opposing Bashar al-Assad’s government, with “hardline Islamists” making up over a third of the combined forces of these rebel groups. Early in the conflict, such fragmentation had not yet occurred. Indeed, the U.S. could have chosen either side of the conflict and, with sufficient early commitment, pushed to broker a political agreement between a swelling opposition and the Assad regime.
Yet out of fear of becoming mired in another lengthy war, the Obama administration failed to take decisive steps to resolve the escalating political crisis while it was still in its infancy, thereby forcing the U.S. into a five-year commitment of diplomatic, financial, and military resources. Rather than issuing the empty demand that Mr. Assad cede complete control of the Syrian government to his opponents, President Obama could have worked with NATO and our Arab allies to establish a no-fly zone over Syria and to implement peacekeeping operations as the early political protests began to escalate, leaving the door open to Mr. Assad to reach out to opposition leaders and formulate a new government in which his power would not be lost altogether. Though it certainly is possible—indeed, probable—that even these efforts might not have prevented the outbreak of civil war, it would have better positioned the United States to control the events on the ground in Syria and to mitigate the vast humanitarian crisis which the world now confronts.
Of course, there is balance to be had. Syria was not of sufficient strategic interest to the United States in March 2011 to justify putting American troops on the ground and toppling the Assad regime by force, and I do not pretend to be an advocate of that impulsive position. Yet a proactive response to the early signs of political cleavage in Syria would have changed the political landscape of the Middle East as we know it today. It is hard to imagine, for example, that ISIS would have made the territorial gains it has made in a Syria stabilized by coalition peacekeeping forces.1
So why the indecision? Why was the Obama administration so quick to chasten the Assad regime publicly yet unwilling to turn its words into action until years into the Syrian conflict?
Ever since President Obama was elected and, for that matter, since the dawn of the Iraq War under President George W. Bush, confusion about what America should be to the rest of the world has reigned supreme. On one hand, the American people are tired of the United States playing the role of the world’s policeman, putting out everyone else’s fires with our blood and treasure. According to Gallup, a majority of Americans believe that sending troops to Iraq was a mistake and that the U.S. should not send ground troops to Iraq and Syria to battle ISIS.
On the the other hand, the United States is the most powerful country in the world and is in a unique position to create positive change in the world. U.S. interventionism in the 70s and 80s precipitated the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the release of millions of people around the globe from the shackles of oppressive communist regimes. Our military power has waned since those days, but it is still the greatest in the world.
President Obama does not seem to know which of these paths to choose. When Libya erupted into conflict in early 2011, he quickly organized a multinational NATO coalition to defend civilians from dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s forces and strike targets on behalf of rebel forces. The Libyan conflict lasted only a few months, after which a new democratically-elected government was formed. Though Libya is still unstable, with rival powers seeking recognition as the legitimate government, the violence it faces relative to Syria is small. And there, American intervention was justified on humanitarian grounds, just as Syria could have been at the onset of the civil conflict there.2
It is hard to discern why President Obama selected a more proactive approach to resolving the conflict in Libya than he did in the case of a war-torn Syria, though this difference appears to be the result of indecision. Faced with the mixed legacy of American interventionism, from the Cold War to Iraq, Obama cannot decide between an America deeply involved in global affairs and an America which avoids entangling itself in foreign conflicts not essential to its national interests. And had this choice been made differently in Syria, much bloodshed might have been avoided.
The same argument has been made about Iraq, where the premature departure of American forces created a vacuum which the Islamic State subsequently filled. ^
- From President Obama’s March 2011 remarks on U.S. intervention in Libya (emphasis added):
“At this point, the United States and the world faced a choice. Qaddafi declared he would show ‘no mercy’ to his own people. He compared them to rats, and threatened to go door to door to inflict punishment. In the past, we have seen him hang civilians in the streets, and kill over a thousand people in a single day. Now we saw regime forces on the outskirts of the city. We knew that if we wanted — if we waited one more day, Benghazi, a city nearly the size of Charlotte, could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.
It was not in our national interest to let that happen. I refused to let that happen. And so nine days ago, after consulting the bipartisan leadership of Congress, I authorized military action to stop the killing and enforce U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973. ” ^