Friday, March 13, 2015

Cardboard man - Barack Obama’s moral bankruptcy on Syria

On the fourth anniversary of the Syrian uprising, one can sympathize with Khaled Khoja, the president of the Syrian National Coalition. Describing how Russia and Iran had forged a “pact of steel” with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Khoja noted that the 114 countries making up the Friends of Syria group had responded with “a pact of cardboard.”

Khoja reserved his most bitter criticism for the United States. He described the American plan to arm 15,000 “moderate” Syrian rebels as a “joke”, and told The Guardian: “The Americans don’t want to coordinate with the [Free Syrian Army]. There is no will from our allies. We have a lot of allies and a lot of promises compared with what the regime has received.”

One day, when Barack Obama becomes a highly-paid fixture on the speakers’ circuit, it will perhaps dawn on Americans that their president disgracefully permitted one of the worst crimes of recent memory to continue unabated for many years.

It took Bill Clinton four years to apologize for his administration’s shameful inaction to the genocide in Rwanda. “We owe to those who died and to those who survived who loved them, our every effort to increase our vigilance and strengthen our stand against those who would commit such atrocities in the future here or elsewhere,” Clinton said.

Evidently the message didn’t reach the University of Chicago. We often hear that Obama is preoccupied with his legacy, and that his eyes are on a nuclear deal with Iran. Whatever the potential benefits of such a deal, this is a president who has very little regard for human rights. His much-praised, yet ultimately vacant, speech in Cairo soon after he took office showed us that Obama, the one-time civil rights activist, had only a vague, theoretical commitment to rights in the Arab world.

 How else does one explain Obama’s reassurances last October to one authoritarian leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that coalition airstrikes in Syria would not target the forces of another, Bashar al-Assad? In other words the president implicitly recognized Iranian stakes in Syria, ignoring Tehran’s participation in the savage repression of the Syrian population.

Even before the emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS), Obama had sent mixed messages on Syria. In August 2012, the president declared: “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that 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.”

Yet when Assad used a whole bunch of chemical weapons in an attack against eastern Ghouta in August 2013, which the United States estimated killed some 1,400 people, Obama failed to recalculate. Instead, he approved a plan pushed by Russia, Assad’s hardnosed ally, to dismantle Syrian chemical weapons.

While this option had its advantages, it confirmed that Obama would do anything to remain clear of Syria—a valuable piece of information for both Russia and Iran. It also affirmed that the Syrian regime would pay no price for having committed a barbaric war crime. If this was a test of Obama’s moral fiber, it was one he failed, showing that when American interests were concerned, the president would take actions that, by omission, favored those to which he was nominally opposed.

ISIS only served to reinforce Obama’s determination to keep Assad in place, fearing that the jihadists would benefit from the Syrian leader’s downfall. But then, why go through the charade of arming the “moderate rebels”? For two reasons, each reflecting breathtaking cynicism. First, to create a force that could recapture ground from ISIS; and second, to keep alive the illusion that the United States was opposed to Assad.

In other words, the Obama administration seeks to turn Syrian moderates into cannon fodder in its own war against ISIS; and it wants to deceive most people into believing that Washington is on the side of good in Syria, in order to better cover for the fact that it has absolutely no intention of undermining Assad.

The only problem is that it is unclear whether the moderates will ever be authorized to fight Assad’s forces at all. Washington is focused on ISIS now, and any possibility that the moderates have to turn their weapons against the regime will only appear in a distant, ill-defined future, once—and if—ISIS is defeated.

One can direct considerable criticism against the Syrian opposition in exile. Yet Iran and Russia have similar negative thoughts about their own Syrian allies. But they stuck with Assad nevertheless, through thick and thin, while the United States and the West showed no such resolve. Nor did Obama seriously consider the advantages of undermining a cornerstone of Iranian and Russian power in the Middle East.

If Obama is a political realist, he is only one in his willingness to coldly accommodate his adversaries’ power moves. But realism is really about denying power to others and increasing one’s own power. Syria was a textbook case where Obama could have deployed his much-vaunted realism to help remove Assad, diminish Iranian influence in the region, isolate Hezbollah, and put in place a regional order more attuned to American desires.

But Obama has proven to be a second-rate realist. He has presided over America’s virtual elimination from the Middle East and alienated its closest allies, reversing half a century of successful American policy. A man of cardboard can only put in place a pact of cardboard. Khoja is right to be resentful.

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