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The Orton Report
December 17, 2016

Analysis: ‘President Obama Defends His Syria Policy to the Last’

by
Kyle Orton

At a rally in Pennsylvania as part of his “Thank You Tour” on Thursday, President-elect Donald Trump said:

We’ll build safe zones in Syria. When I look at what’s going on in Syria it’s so sad. It’s so sad, and we’ve got to help people. And we have the Gulf states; they have nothing but money. We don’t have money. We owe twenty trillion dollars. I will get the Gulf states to give us lots of money, and we’ll build and help build safe zones in Syria so people can have a chance.

Trump’s previous statements on Syria have actually demonstrated some consistency, and Trump has expressed support for safe zones before.

Taking Trump’s statement as a jumping-off point, the next day, at this final press conference of 2016, President Barack Obama was asked about the idea of safe zones in Syria and if he felt responsible for the horrors now unfolding in Aleppo. Obama responded:

I always feel responsible … I feel responsible for murder and slaughter that’s taken place in South Sudan that’s not being reported on, partly because there’s not as much social media being generated from there. … There are places around the world where horrible things are happening and because of my office … I feel responsible. I ask myself every single day: Is there something I could do that would save lives and make a difference and spare some child who doesn’t deserve to suffer? …

[W]ith respect to Syria, 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. …

Whenever we went through it, the challenge [with creating safe zones] was that [there was no way of doing it] short of putting large numbers of U.S. troops on the ground—uninvited, without any international law mandate, without sufficient support from Congress, at a time when we still had troops in Afghanistan and we still had troops in Iraq and we had just gone through over a decade of war and spent trillions of dollars, and when the opposition on the ground was not cohesive enough to necessarily govern a country, and you had a military superpower in Russia prepared to do whatever it took to keep its client state involved and you had a regional military power in Iran that saw their own vital strategic interests at stake and were willing to send in as many of their people or proxies to support the regime.

In that circumstance, unless we were all-in and willing to take over Syria, we were going to have problems. And everything else was tempting because we wanted to do something and it sounded like the right thing to do but it was going to be impossible to do this on the cheap. …

I understand the impulse to want to do something, but ultimately … it has been our view that the best thing to do has been to provide some support to the moderate opposition so that they could sustain themselves, and that you wouldn’t see anti-Assad regime sentiments just pouring into [Jabhat] al-Nusra and al-Qaeda or [the Islamic State], and that we engaged our international partners in order to put pressure on all the parties involved to try to resolve this through diplomatic and political means.

I cannot claim that we’ve been successful. … But I continue to believe that it was the right approach given what realistically we could get done—absent a decision, as I said, to go into much more significant way, and that, I think would not have been a sustainable or good for the American people.

It is rather strange to see a U.S. President say that the opposition of a lawless regime like that of Bashar al-Assad’s, or the antagonism of adversarial powers like Iran and Russia, is a reason for the U.S. not to act. Odder still that this alibi should be used to cover times when these powers were not so heavily invested (Iran) or were not overtly militarily invested at all (Russia). But for an administration committed to respecting the “equities” of the Iranian revolution in Syria—the ground troops for the Russian airstrikes—this might not be so strange after all.

It is remarkable how unmoving Obama’s talking-points on Syria have remained over the last seventy months.

After it broke out in February and March 2011, the Syrian uprising was—with one or two exceptions—a peaceful protest movement until around December 2011 when clashes between defecting officers and the Assad regime’s troops became regular. By February 2012, with the Syrian population only just beginning to fight back, 7,500 people, at a minimum, had been killed in the regime’s savage crackdown.

It was at that time that the late Fouad Ajami wrote, “In the Obama world, … it is either boots on the ground or head in the sand.” And this particular strawman has become the most persistent in the Syria debate: the only alternative to Obama’s prescription is a full-scale invasion of Syria (phrased here as being “willing to take over Syria”). That no commentator or politician of any standing has ever advocated any such thing has not stopped the President recurring to this idea. For Obama, Syria has not been judged on its own but in the shadow of the Iraq War.

The mention of South Sudan echoes the prior invocation of “the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo” as an explanation for the U.S.’s lack of action to stop or even complicate the pro-Assad coalition’s capacity to perpetrate atrocities against the Syrian population.

The Obama administration’s support for the moderate opposition, while advocating for diplomacy, has “pioneered a third option … between action and inaction,” namely “inconsequential action.” Support for the nationalist rebels has never been at a level to actually alter battlefield dynamics; it was meant to quiet domestic political pressure and the protests of allies. The opposition might not have been as “cohesive” as could be wished but it seems to mix up cause and effect to wait for such cohesiveness before providing serious support. Moreover, the rise of al-Qaeda, particularly, is in no small part attributable to the mainstream revolutionary forces being deprived of meaningful, sustained external support.

It is perhaps understandable that Obama has not seriously committed to the Syrian rebellion. From very early on there were dark insinuations from administration officials about the nature of the opposition, which has continued both before and after the fall of Aleppo. When it wasn’t character it was capability. The President believes those who have fought on for six years against Assad, Russia, Iran, Hizballah and other foreign Shi’i jihadists, the Islamic State, and intermittently al-Qaeda are “doctors, farmers, [and] pharmacists” who could never have defeated the regime. That assessment was not shared by the Russians and Iranians, whose contrary view triggered ever-deepening involvement on Assad’s side.

Samantha Power, a war correspondent and academic, wrote a magisterial book in 2002, A Problem from Hell, a definitive account of the various stages of denial and deception the West goes through to avoid responding to a genocide. It has held up remarkably well. U.S. officials in the Executive branch—often backed by tacit majorities in Congress—manifest two objectives, Power explained. First, they want to avoid an entanglement that does not meet a narrow definition of national interests and, second, they want to avoid the political cost and moral stigma of acquiescing to genocide. This leads to “overemphasiz[ing] the ambiguity of the facts” and playing up “the likely futility, perversity, and jeopardy of any proposed intervention” on the one side, wrote Power, and taking “solace in the normal operations of the foreign policy bureaucracy” to disseminate “an illusion of continual deliberation, complex activity, and intense concern” on the other.

Explaining why officials who wish to do more to stop crimes against humanity stay in administration’s that don’t, Power recorded that “[t]hey assumed … that speaking (or walking) out would only reduce their capacity to improve the policy.” Power is currently, and has been for three years as the carnage escalated in Syria, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Power has adhered to the procedures described in her book for deflecting responsibility during a genocide as if the book was written as a script. The fierce tweets at Russian officials and theatrics at the U.N., while remaining loyal to an administration bent on non-intervention, are a near-perfect example of the impotent displays of “intense concern” meant to run out the clock that Power wrote of.

With the conquest of Aleppo City by the pro-Assad coalition, Syria has been condemned to war for the foreseeable future and the extremists on all sides have been bolstered. Given the hopeless fragmentation of Syria, safe zones or protectorates might be a way to salvage parts of the country or at least reduce civilian casualties. That seems fated to be decided by the next administration, however. Samantha Power has thirty days to “improve the policy” from the inside, but the only man who really counts believes the “right approach” has been taken in Syria.