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President Obama’s Policy on Syria

K. P. Fabian retired from the Indian Foreign Service in 2000, when he was ambassador to Italy and PR to UN. His book Commonsense on War on Iraq was published in 2003.
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  • November 18, 2014

    The US midterm poll results have considerably reduced President Obama’s control over US foreign policy. With the Republicans’ seizing majority in the Senate as well as enhancing their strength in the House of Representatives where they already had majority combined with the falling approval rating of his six years of presidency, Obama will have to seek the concurrence of the Republicans on any foreign policy initiative that requires Congressional approval. For example, he cannot lift sanctions on Iran as part of a deal on the nuclear issue without the support of the Republicans. Has Obama become a lame-duck president?

    This is the right time to raise a fundamental question about Obama’s policy towards Syria: Is there a coherent , consistent policy, based on a reasonably accurate assessment of the ground realities in Syria? The answer is a definite no.

    Any policy has to be based on good assessment. On August 11,2011, Obama publicly asked President Basher al-Assad to step down as he had lost his legitimacy. Soon, Germany, France, and UK came out with similar calls for Assad to step down. In retrospect, it is evident that the assessment that Assad was fast losing ground and about to fall was flawed. We do not know how such an assessment was arrived at. But, it is known that Saudi Arabia and Qatar had conveyed to Washington that their intelligence agencies had done the necessary investigations and come to the conclusion that Assad was about to fall. It would appear that US accepted that assessment uncritically. However, President Obama did not find it necessary to give increased military aid to the ‘secular and moderate’ group(SM for short) that he chose to support, partly owing to fear that weapons might be captured by the ‘extremists’ opposed to US. While one can understand the logic of caution, it is difficult to ignore the inconsistency and inconsequentiality of policy. Was there also a wish-fulfilling assessment that if Assad falls MS will inevitably take over?

    Having decided to give only limited and patently insufficient military aid to SM, US decided that there was scope for a political, negotiated resolution to the crisis. Kofi Annan was appointed as the Representative of both UN and Arab League. A conference was convened in Geneva in June 2012. The selection of participants was deeply flawed. Iran, a major player but for whose support Assad might have fallen, was not invited. Saudi Arabia was strongly opposed to Iran’s participation and Obama would have come under criticism from the powerful pro-Israeli lobby within US if Iran was invited. The representation from Syria was only the SM, rather a marginal player within Syria. Even SM was deeply divided about the wisdom of attending. A negotiated solution is possible only when both sides are prepared to compromise. In the present case, Assad was not prepared to step down and SM was not prepared to backtrack from its demand for him to step down. The final product was a document that called for an end to violence, a call that did not make any sense as Assad was not prepared to stop using violence against his opponents he called ‘terrorists’ and the major armed groups fighting the regime were not represented at Geneva. Predictably, Kofi Annan came to the conclusion that the whole process was sterile and he walked out.

    In August 2012, President Obama came out with ‘red lines’ and threatened President Assad with ‘enormous consequences’ should he cross them. Basically, it was about the moving around or use of chemical weapons. The first chemical attack occurred in March 2013 in Khan Al Asal . The UN Mission to investigate into the attack reached Damascus on August 21, 2014 and that day there was a large scale attack in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, killing about 1400 human beings. US charged Assad with responsibility for the attack on Ghouta though it was unable to present any conclusive evidence. Reports came out of US plans to strike at Syria.Russia and China stated that there was no evidence against Assad. The Pentagon moved war ships with Tomahawk missiles and B- 52 bombers close to Syria. The attack was to commence between August 30 and September 1. On August 31, when Obama was expected to announce the commencement of airstrikes, he changed course and said that he was going to ask for Congressional approval. The Senate was going to approve airstrikes, but it was not certain that the House of Representatives would go along. The House wanted hearings first. Polls showed that majority of people did not support airstrikes.

    The White House put out the story that the President changed his mind as a result of a walking conversation with his Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. But few people believe that. The general impression is that finding that his Plan A was not working, Obama decided on Plan B. John Kerry in a press conference hinted that should Assad surrender his chemical weapons, there would be need for airstrikes. Russia seized on that statement and arranged for Syria to join the Chemical Weapons Convention and to agree to the destruction of its stock.

    There is another story, not to be dismissed, about the change of track by Obama. The US intelligence told him that there was no hard evidence against Assad and that US action would be considered as aggression and that the Middle East might ‘go up in smoke’. President Putin had spoken of ‘catastrophic consequences’ of US military action without Security Council approval. Obama was compelled to change course.The net result was that the weapons with the Syrian Government were located and destroyed; there might be weapons with the rebels as chemical weapons are easy to make; Assad’s position got strengthened; Obama’s credibility as Commander-in-Chief declined; and Saudi Arabia and others expecting airstrikes were disappointed. It is obvious that Obama did not show good judgment expected of a President when he announced plans to strike and then hesitated. In fact, the error goes back to his ‘red lines’ speech of August 2012 that upset his own military and diplomats as it was a rather hasty response to a question.

    We might mention en passant the second Geneva Conference held in January/February 2014 for which Kofi Annan’s successor Lakhdar Brahimi worked hard. Iran was invited and then dis-invited.As the Conference was a resounding failure, Brahimi resigned in May 2014. There is no attempt at a political resolution of the crisis now.

    The airstrikes against IS(Islamic State) in Syria going on for more than a month meant to ‘degrade and ultimately destroy IS’ have prevented them from taking over Kobane at the border with Turkey. Does the US have any policy towards Assad? Defence Secretary Hagel has asked his President in writing what US policy towards Syria as a whole is. That Hagel had to ask for in writing shows that Obama has not so far formulated any policy. Obama’s announced plan to train 5000 Syrians chosen by MS to be trained outside Syria before they are sent to Syria does not make sense as they will have to fight the other armed rebel groups , the Syrian government forces, and the Kurds.

    It should be pointed out that it is not always possible to have a clear cut policy in a fluid situation like that in Syria and that the belief of some Obama’s critics that US can intervene in foreign conflicts and decisively influence the outcome is rather naïve. But that said President Obama could have been less inconsistent , inconsequential and incoherent. As of now Syria is divided into many with Assad controlling a third of territory. There is no sign of any end to the meaningless massacre that has been going on for more than forty months.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India