Obama faces growing criticism on Syria

Sunday 03/07/2016
US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura address a joint press conference in Vienna, Austria, last May.

Washington - Despite criticism from members of the US Con­gress and within the US State Department, US President Barack Obama is unlikely to change his Syria poli­cy, even in the face of stymied dip­lomatic talks and defiance by the Syrian regime.

Obama apparently believes that more robust military action in Syria carries more risks than benefits and this remains his guiding philoso­phy.

In the interview Obama gave to Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic magazine, the president hinted that he was frustrated by US Secretary of State John Kerry’s and Vice-Pres­ident Joe Biden’s urging for more action in Syria. Kerry admitted to Goldberg that he has more of a bias towards action than Obama but suggested that does not hurt his re­lationship with the president.

Obama told Goldberg that any thoughtful president, after more than a decade of war in the region, “would hesitate about making a renewed commitment in the exact same region of the world with some of the exact same dynamics and the same probability of an unsatisfac­tory outcome”.

It is this caution that has exasper­ated the more hawkish members of Congress as well as some diplo­mats. In June, 51 mid-level State Department officials wrote a letter through the department’s dissent channel calling for “a more militar­ily assertive US role based on the judicious use of stand-off and air weapons”. The letter said the moral rationale for “taking steps to end the deaths and suffering in Syria, after five years of brutal war, is evi­dent and unquestionable”.

Kerry said the dissent letter was “very good” and met with a few of its authors but did not openly en­dorse their position. Biden used the occasion of a television interview to be the administration’s chief crit­ic of the letter, saying “not a single, solitary recommendation that I saw [in the dissent letter] has a single, solitary answer attached to it.”

Biden added that Obama “has been fastidious” in asking the US military and intelligence agencies about what will work and not work in Syria. Biden suggested it would be wrong to “do something about (Syrian President Bashar) Assad first”.

Obama thus is content with his Syria strategy of using a few hun­dred US special operations forces personnel to work with the Syr­ian Democratic Forces (comprised of Kurds and Arab tribesmen) in northern and eastern Syria to fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), us­ing US and coalition air power to strike ISIS targets and pursuing an international diplomatic route to try and reach a consensus about a new Syrian regime.

The problem is that the current military strategy is like a slow mov­ing train. Obama’s hope is that ISIS will be degraded over time and eventually lose its “caliphate” capi­tal of Raqqa but ISIS has proven to be resilient and has even mounted counter-attacks in recent weeks.

The diplomatic route about As­sad’s future and a new regime re­mains a distant goal. Buoyed by Russian air strikes, Assad does not seem inclined to pack up and leave. All of this leaves the Syrian opposi­tion frustrated.

Politically, Syria has emerged as a top foreign policy issue during the US presidential campaign sea­son. Presumptive Republican Party nominee Donald Trump has lam­basted the Obama administration for not doing enough against ISIS and has promised that if elected he will put an end to the jihadist group “very soon”.

This is the one foreign policy is­sue where Trump, who is more of an isolationist, says the United States must act militarily.

Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic Party nominee, has a more hawkish position than Obama because of her support for a no-fly zone to protect Syrian citizens. Af­ter criticism from her Democratic rival, Bernie Sanders, who argued that the Arab states must take on ISIS, Clinton has been silent on the issue.

Obama’s cautious approach to Syria has risks for his own legacy. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have died on his watch and mil­lions have become refugees. This is a major humanitarian disaster that he has been saddled with and his­torians might say Obama’s caution (and that of other leaders) was in­excusable.

It could even be something akin to president Bill Clinton’s inaction during the 1994 Rwandan geno­cide, which Clinton later acknowl­edged as being one of his greatest mistakes.

However, in Obama’s thinking, a repeat of the 2003 Iraq war would be a more serious mistake and he is probably hoping that his caution on Syria will be viewed sympatheti­cally in that light.