National Security & Defense

Obama’s Disastrous Syria Policy

Inside the historic Umayyad mosque in Aleppo, Syria, December 13, 2016. (Reuters photo: Omar Sanadiki )

The fall of Aleppo demonstrates the grave costs of American inaction. At nearly every turn of the conflict in Syria, the Obama administration yielded the military and strategic initiative to America’s enemies.

The results are now plain to see. The death toll in Syria approaches a half-million men, women, and children. Millions more have been displaced, and the largest wave of refugees to reach Europe since World War II has created a crisis on the Continent. Chaos and power vacuums gave the world’s worst jihadist army — ISIS — room to launch an offensive into Iraq that nearly brought that nation to its knees. And terrorists have infiltrated the great cities of the West.

Indeed, the Syrian civil war is an international calamity on account of ISIS alone. That group has created a pseudo-caliphate that has inspired tens of thousands of jihadists to take up arms in the Middle East; it has perpetrated horrifying atrocities on civilians (especially Christians and other minority religious groups); and it has inspired attacks that have brought Islamic terror back to American shores.

But the situation is even more grim. In this bloodbath, the primary “winners” are America’s enemies and strategic rivals. Iran and Hezbollah have buttressed Bashar al-Assad’s forces on the ground, while Russia has employed decisive (and often indiscriminate) force from the air. Predictably, the Kremlin has been busy battering rebel groups nominally allied with America, leaving the fight against ISIS mainly to the United States and its Kurdish allies.

 

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There was never an easy answer to the Syrian conflict, but it’s indisputably clear that the Obama administration made a series of mistakes. It failed to aggressively support potential allies early in the war, when Assad was most vulnerable. It destroyed its own credibility by drawing, then ignoring, its “red line” when there was overwhelming evidence that the Assad regime was using chemical weapons. It underestimated ISIS — the president himself called it the “JV team” — until the junior varsity was threatening Kurdistan and Baghdad. Then, when it finally decided to act, the administration launched a slow-motion war that gave ISIS more than two years to entrench itself in key cities, create franchises across the Middle East, execute and inspire terror attacks, and evangelize its ideology among Muslim communities in the West.

While the administration has managed to learn a few lessons — it reversed course enough to save Iraq and put ISIS into retreat there — the reality is that some errors are irreversible. Russia and its allies have won victories in Syria that would be nearly impossible to roll back without courting a showdown among great powers.

President Trump will come into office facing an unfavorable strategic situation with few good options. Assad and Putin — for all their sanctimonious rhetoric about fighting ISIS — will almost certainly busy themselves stamping out the last American-allied militias in Syria while leaving the fight against ISIS (including the battle for Raqqa) to America, the Kurds, and our few remaining Arab allies. Assad will possess the nation’s population centers, Russia will be there to guarantee Assad’s gains, and our allies will be pushed farther toward the periphery.

In many ways, Syria represents the ultimate failure of Obama’s “reset” with Russia. While Putin’s actions in Russia’s own neighborhood — his annexing part of Georgia, his seizure of Crimea, his invasion of Ukraine, and his saber-rattling against the Baltics — were alarming, Russia’s military success in Syria is staggering: Just a quarter of a century after the Soviet Union was rebuffed from the Middle East, Putin’s sphere of influence stretches from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf.

Ironically, Obama acted timidly in part to maintain influence over Putin. State Department officials reportedly didn’t want Obama to condemn or sanction Russia for hacking the Democratic National Committee because they worried that it would impede efforts to “make a deal” with Russia on Syria. Putin exploited this weakness for his own ends.

As the death toll continues to mount and reports of Syrian and Russian atrocities roll in, the consequences of Barack Obama’s do-nothing foreign policy are manifest. The Syrian civil war presented a considerable challenge, but from a palette of undesirable options, the Obama administration consistently chose the worst. The death, suffering, and instability that have followed are part of his legacy.

The Editors — The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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