Politics & Policy

Syria: America Sidelined

After Iraq, Obama wasted a golden opportunity to keep a presence in the region.

The war in Syria, started by locals, is now a regional conflict, the meeting ground of two warring blocs. On one side, the radical Shiite bloc led by Iran, which overflies Iraq to supply Bashar Assad and sends Hezbollah to fight for him. Behind them lies Russia, which has stationed ships offshore, provided the regime with tons of weaponry, and essentially claimed Syria as a Russian protectorate.

And on the other side are the Sunni Gulf states terrified of Iranian hegemony (territorial and soon nuclear); non-Arab Turkey, now convulsed by an internal uprising; and fragile Jordan, dragged in by geography.

#ad#And behind them? No one. It’s the Spanish Civil War except that only one side — the fascists — showed up. The natural ally of what began as a spontaneous, secular, liberationist uprising in Syria was the United States. For two years, it did nothing.

President Obama’s dodge was his chemical-weapons red line. In a conflict requiring serious statecraft, Obama chose to practice forensics instead, earnestly agonizing over whether reported poison-gas attacks reached the evidentiary standards of CSI: Miami.

Obama talked “chain of custody,” while Iran and Russia, hardly believing their luck, reached for regional hegemony — the ayatollahs solidifying their “Shiite crescent” and Vladimir Putin seizing the opportunity to dislodge America as regional hegemon, a position the U.S. achieved four decades ago under Henry Kissinger.

And when finally forced to admit that his red line had been crossed — a “game changer,” Obama had gravely warned — what did he do? Promise the rebels small arms and ammunition.

That’s it? It’s meaningless: The rebels are already receiving small arms from the Gulf states.

Compounding the half-heartedness, Obama transmitted his new “calculus” through his deputy national-security adviser. Deputy, mind you. Obama gave 39 (or was it 42?) speeches on health-care reform. How many on the regional war in Syria, in which he has now involved the United States, however uselessly? Zero.

Serious policymaking would dictate that we either do something that will alter the course of the war, or do nothing. Instead, Obama has chosen to do just enough to give the appearance of having done something.

But it gets worse. Despite his commitment to steadfast inaction, Obama has been forced by events to send F-16s, Patriot missiles, and a headquarters unit of the First Armored Division (indicating preparation for a possible “larger force,” explains the Washington Post) — to Jordan. America’s most reliable Arab ally needs protection. It is threatened not just by a flood of refugees but by the rise of Iran’s radical Shiite bloc with ambitions far beyond Syria, beyond even Jordan and Lebanon, to Yemen, where, it was reported just Wednesday, Iran is arming and training separatists.

Obama has thus been forced back into the very vacuum he created — but at a distinct disadvantage. We are now scrambling to put together some kind of presence in Jordan as a defensive counterweight to the Iran-Hezbollah-Russia bloc.

The tragedy is that we once had a counterweight and Obama threw it away. Obama still thinks the total evacuation of Iraq is a foreign-policy triumph. In fact, his inability — unwillingness? — to negotiate a status of forces agreement that would have left behind a small but powerful residual force in Iraq is precisely what compels him today to recreate in Jordan a pale facsimile of that regional presence.

Whatever the wisdom of the Iraq War in the first place, when Obama came to office in January 2009 the war was won. Al-Qaeda in Iraq had been routed. Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite government had taken down the Sadr Shiite extremists from Basra all the way north to Baghdad. Casualties were at a wartime low, the civil war essentially over.

We had a golden opportunity to reap the rewards of this too-bloody war by establishing a strategic relationship with an Iraq that was still under American sway. Iraqi airspace, for example, was under U.S. control as we prepared to advise and rebuild Iraq’s nonexistent air force.

With our evacuation, however, Iraqi airspace today effectively belongs to Iran — over which it is flying weapons, troops, and advisers to turn the tide in Syria. The U.S. air bases, the vast military equipment, the intelligence sources available in Iraq were all abandoned. Gratis. Now we’re trying to hold the line in Jordan.

Obama is learning very late that, for a superpower, inaction is a form of action. You can abdicate, but you really can’t hide. History will find you. It has now found Obama.

Charles Krauthammer is a nationally syndicated columnist. © 2013 the Washington Post Writers Group

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