National Security & Defense

Obama’s Syria Policy Is Morally and Strategically Bankrupt

Syrians fleeing Aleppo wait at a Turkish border crossing, February 6, 2016. (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty)

Five years ago, President Obama proudly declared that “some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different.” Imagine how that must sound to a people whose government has killed more than a quarter million of its citizens and made refugees of 9 million more, who suffer chemical-weapons and barrel-bomb attacks, kidnappings, and torture. Syrians are trapped between a murderous government and the murderous Islamic state — small wonder they are fleeing by the millions.

Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city and the last rebel stronghold, is about to be retaken by the Assad government. Russia is conducting 200 airstrikes a day in support of its current offensive (by contrast, the U.S. coalition carries out only eight per day throughout Syria). In the past week, another 60,000 Syrians have fled their homes in the city and are pinned against the Turkish border, where that government hesitates to take in more than the 2,500,000 refugees they are already protecting. The U.N. expects another 150,000 people to flee Aleppo before all is said and done.

The White House is once again floating rumors that it is rethinking its Syria strategy. Since President Obama walked away from his 2013 “red line” ultimatum, John Kerry has been energetically organizing diplomatic meetings at which all parties know the United States has no intention of changing the facts on the ground in Syria. That knowledge has leeched any moral or political authority away from the U.S. position. As a result, we are a mere convener for meetings in which the Russians, Iranians, and Syrians dictate terms to Syria’s rebels. “What are you going to do, other than statements?” the rebels ask. The Obama administration piously intones that there is no military solution in Syria. But, as the Wall Street Journal’s Ahmed Al Omran has pointed out, that’s just not true: There is a military solution, and it’s being carried out by the Syrian government, in alliance with Russia and Iran.

#share#Russian strategy in Syria is the same as Syrian and Iranian strategy: kill the non–Islamic State Syrian opposition to keep Assad in power, leaving the terrorist group as the only alternative. The Director of Defense Intelligence testified yesterday that Russia has so far succeeded. Before Russia’s intervention, Assad was losing; now he is poised to retake Aleppo, and Russia has become a major power in the Middle East.

Russia has sent a clear signal in the Middle East and beyond that it will deliver devastating violence on behalf of its allies.

Russia has sent a clear signal in the Middle East and beyond that it will deliver devastating violence on behalf of its allies. According to the British Foreign Secretary, it has deliberately targeted civilians, killing over a thousand. President Putin justifies the action, saying, “One should try anything to support the legitimate rulers in Syria.” Contrast that with President Obama’s statement in December: “I’m confident that we are on the winning side of this and that ultimately, Russia’s going to recognize the threat.”  President Obama has proved himself fearful of confronting Vladimir Putin, increasing the danger to our country and many others.

Russia has been economically and militarily weak since the end of the Cold War, unable to become successful on Western terms. Putin has an astronomical approval rating because he is giving Russians their pride back, even as his actions impoverish them. Allowing Russia to impose the peace of the grave on Syria is not only horrible for Syria, it will cause American allies around the world to fear our security guarantees are feeble.

#related#Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have volunteered ground troops to fight in Syria — provided that the United States is on the ground alongside them. Turkey would also join in. But no one will fight a two-front war against Syria, Russia, Iran, and the Islamic State without the United States on the ground and committed to winning it. “Leading from behind” simply will not do.

The United States is long overdue to protect the grieving people of Syria from the preying vultures of Assad, Iran, Russia, and the Islamic State. President Obama worries about the cost of American involvement abroad and the risk of confronting Putin’s Russia; he ought to be much more worried about the cost of our remaining uninvolved. As Obama administration special envoy Martin Indyk put it, “not taking a stand in Syria was the original mistake that helped to open the gates of hell.”

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