Barack Obama no doubt views his foreign policy legacy as a list of successes. He disentangled the US from the imbroglio of Iraq. He turned the page with Cuba. And he sealed the nuclear deal with Iran. Yet this list of seemingly impressive achievements — many of which, like the Iran deal, may yet prove a boomerang for Obama and his place in history — is overshadowed by his complete paralysis over Syria.
In place of a policy, Obama has offered a litany of empty words and platitudes without any real commitment to solve Syria’s civil war and defend the West’s vital interests in the region. His words have only made matters worse, laying bare the stark contrast between the President’s knack for flowery rhetoric and his actions.
In August 2011 Obama made his Syria policy clear. “The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way,” he said in a written statement. “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”
These were grave words, pronounced by a President who had just helped another Arab insurgency topple a tyrant in Libya. At a relatively small cost, with no troops committed to ground operations, and the legal trappings of a multinational coalition backed by a UN Security Council resolution, Obama felt confident enough to warn Assad that his time was also coming. The international community expected action to follow. But it did not.
Obama revisited this issue in a moving speech delivered at the US Holocaust Museum in April 2012. Not only did he reaffirm America’s commitment to Assad’s removal but he promised to step up US action to achieve the goal.
“We will keep increasing the pressure,” he said, “with a diplomatic effort to further isolate Assad and his regime, so that those who stick with Assad know that they are making a losing bet.” But Assad stayed on and America did nothing to change that.
The President has always been fond of reminding his global audiences that those who choose not to join him are on the losing side. They are on the wrong side of history. They are in the wrong century. They bet on the wrong horse. And thus he marches on, confident that his words, exuding as they do a certitude of destiny, need not be followed by actions.
But the President’s words must mean something. They carry more weight than those of a pundit or an academic expressing an opinion. When the President calls on a foreign leader to step down, his words are a road map to policy planners, a call to action, and a signal to the international community. The President has spoken. Expect something meaningful to follow. Except that, with Syria, nothing happened.
In an August 2012 press conference, Obama addressed the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria and said that “a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilised. That would change my calculus.”
It did not. Assad repeatedly crossed the President’s red line with mounting brazenness and no consequences to speak of.
Rather than making true of his threats of military retaliation, Obama sought a way out that, in the process, emasculated Western policy and undermined the commitment of the French and British governments to take action themselves.
The very few actions Obama has taken with regard to Syria have actually made matters worse. The US withdrawal from Iraq has left a void there that pro-Assad forces have immediately exploited.
Whereas prior to 2011 Iranian weapons supplied to Hezbollah and the Syrian regime had to follow tortuous and lengthy sea or land routes that were frequently bombed or cut off, the removal of American air patrols over Iraqi skies has opened a short, convenient and straightforward air corridor between Iran and Syria that has guaranteed the steady resupply of Assad’s war effort.
Obama’s insistence that US-backed rebels in Syria commit to fight only Islamic State has made any effort to arm and train a friendly opposition pointless. And his decision to avoid direct confrontation with Iran over Syria lest nuclear negotiations were affected did the rest.
By 2016, the US had become locked into a farcical diplomatic dance. It has acquiesced in Russia’s brutal military intervention in the region, recognised Iran’s claims to Syria as part of its sphere of influence and blamed the opposition for not declaring defeat.
Under this cover, Iran’s coordinated military assault on the rebels has turned the tables in favour of the regime in Damascus and ensured that Assad will stay in office long after Obama is gone.
The President has spoken but failed to act. History will take note.