Thursday, February 6, 2014

Obama’s Syria policy is disintegrating

For most Americans, including President Barack Obama, the benchmark of success is whether they can stay out of the Syrian conflict. But statements by U.S. officials suggest that this ostrichlike approach, with America’s head firmly in the sand, could backfire.

That, at least, is what one gets out of the statement released Tuesday by James Clapper, the director of national intelligence. Clapper admitted that President Bashar Assad had “strengthened” his hold on power in Syria and that his regime had taken advantage of an agreement approved by the Obama administration to abandon his chemical weapons. More ominously, this came as anxiety has risen that some of the more extremist groups in Syria, which are gaining in potency as the chaos there persists, might one day target the U.S.

Add to that the growing realization in Washington that Assad has sought to undermine the main diplomatic project pushed by the administration, the Geneva process, which had gone nowhere by the time the first round of talks came to a close last week.

Welcome to wrestling with the Assad regime. The Obama administration has been a bumbling, stupid giant in the face of a Syrian regime that has defined cynicism in its quest for political survival and a Russian leadership that has delighted in exploiting the impotence and anti-war mood in Washington and Europe.

Only at one stage did the administration scare both: when Obama, cornered by his own rhetoric, announced that he would bomb regime targets in Syria last summer. It was not as if the president hadn’t tried to reassure the Assad regime and the Russians, repeating time and again that he planned a limited operation. But they apparently were more lucid about American military power than the White House, and almost everything they have done in the past three years has aimed to neutralize an Obama administration seeking nothing less.

The chemical deal with Russia was designed to derail an American attack. The Assad regime’s effective encouragement of jihadist groups was intended to scare the Americans and Europeans and discredit the Syrian opposition. And Assad’s agreement to go to Geneva was a sop to Russia, so that it could keep the Americans engaged in a “process,” because process, whether successful or unsuccessful, has become the standard for American diplomatic seriousness.

On the nuclear deal and at Geneva, the Syrians have taken a page out of the book of the late Hafez Assad. They have negotiated every last detail, usually in bad faith, making minimal concessions only to keep the empty processes alive and buy time. The Russians have in no way challenged this. On the contrary, they have led the Americans on, bending only when necessary to keep the bait and switch going.

That is why the Syrians will continue to hold on to a significant portion of their chemical weapons, and it is why Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem will continue to ensure, in line with his president’s instructions, that Geneva goes absolutely nowhere – certainly not toward any serious discussion of a transition away from Assad rule, avoidance of which is the regime’s absolute priority.

So, Clapper’s admission that Assad is getting stronger and that he benefited from the chemical deal was a statement of the obvious. It was also implicit confirmation that Obama’s claims that the chemical agreement represented a diplomatic breakthrough were wrong. One person apparently displeased with the administration’s policy is Secretary of State John Kerry, whom Senator Lindsey Graham described as frustrated with Russia and Assad after the secretary held a closed-door meeting on Sunday with Congressional leaders.

Pity Kerry. He was once under the illusion that Assad could be a force for reform in the Middle East, this at a time when the Syrian leader was dispatching jihadists to Iraq to kill American soldiers and was seeking to reimpose Syrian hegemony over Lebanon. But now that Kerry is inside the ring, he can see how thoroughly the U.S. has been taken for a ride, and how Obama’s standoffishness, even indifference, toward the Middle East has encouraged this.

To put it bluntly, not one of America’s objectives in Syria has been achieved, even as the Syrian conflict has destabilized the region. Obama can talk to his electorate about health care, drug legalization and gay marriage all day, but at some point he must inform them that the U.S. still has strategic interests in the Middle East that require more than passing attention. Part of any policy is preparing the public for a particular course of action. Obama’s failure to do so was precisely why his intention to strike Syria after the chemical attacks last August was so roundly opposed by many Americans.

The reality is that the Obama administration needs to overhaul a Syria policy that is disintegrating by the day. Obama should shake himself out of his lethargy and make a strong case for such a change, much as Bill Clinton did after the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia in July 1995. Like Obama, Clinton also sought initially to be a “domestic president,” but unlike him, he adapted when he realized that the world didn’t bend itself around the American president’s agenda.

With Clapper and Kerry stating that America is being hoodwinked over Syria, including by its supposed Russian partner, Obama has to wake up. Perfunctorily adhering to an empty negotiating process that will move only when one side gains militarily guarantees that the situation in Syria will worsen. And as Afghanistan showed, America can pay a heavy price for its indifference to faraway places.

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