How will history judge Obama’s actions in Syria?
As the world waits to get a sense of the contours of the Trump administration’s policies in Syria, reports have surfaced that the Pentagon may propose ramping up U.S. involvement and sending in ground troops.
In the retrospective, it is axiomatic among Washington’s foreign policy establishment that the Obama administration’s response to the chaos in Syria will be a lasting stain on his legacy. With nearly 500,000 dead since the March 2011 uprising that sparked the war, the foreign policy elite have blamed Barack Obama for not doing more.
But how will history view Obama’s Syria policy? Unlike so many other instances during his presidency, when it came to Syria, Obama defied the Washington playbook and kept the United States from getting mired in another Middle East conflict, sure to unleash a host of unintended consequences.
In a much ballyhooed Atlantic interview last year, Obama criticized what he called the “playbook that comes of the foreign policy establishment in Washington,” which “prescribes responses” that “tend to be militarized.” He relied on a prominent group of liberal interventionist foreign policy advisers, including his secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, national security adviser, Susan Rice, and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, who had these same tendencies throughout his presidency.
Clinton, Rice and Power led the push to intervene in Libya in 2011, and were equally vociferous in their advocacy for greater U.S. engagement in Syria. But the pressure to ramp up U.S. support to Syrian rebels did not just come from within the administration. Indeed, “most of the foreign-policy establishment in Washington, both Democrat and Republican” supported a larger effort in Syria.
In 2011, Obama called for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down, and as the civil war became increasingly complex and bloody, calls for intervention grew markedly. Yet, many of the critics of the president’s Syria policy articulated exaggerated views about the United States’s ability to shape events in Syria. According to Josh Landis, one of the foremost Syria analysts in the U.S., “There is no way that the United States was going to solve the Syria Problem in any constructive way – and just keeping us out of it to the extent he [Obama] did was a boon.”
After significant pressure, Obama eventually relented somewhat and in 2014 asked Congress for funds to train and equip approximately 15,000 rebels in Jordan. The program was colossal failure, and the administration was eventually forced to admit that only four or five of the recruits in the program returned to fight in Syria.
The failure to build a credible rebel force in Syria is not some outlier: U.S. efforts to arm insurgent groups rarely succeed, and often come back to bite.
According to several CIA studies beginning in 2012, past attempts by the agency to arm insurgent forces had little impact, and were particularly ineffective without direct U.S. support on the ground. Obama was always deeply dubious of the rebel’s ability to be an effective fighting force, arguing that the moderate opposition was made up of “former doctors, farmers, pharmacists” going up against a well-armed state backed by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.
Those in favor of greater support for the Syrian rebels were enamored with the notion of “moderate” rebels. The problem all along was that such a contingent would have never been effective: The Assad regime’s violent and draconian response to the early peaceful protests helped to quickly suppress moderate voices. According to Landis, “America failed not because it didn’t try, but because its moderates were incompetent and unpopular.” Overall, Landis argues that extremist groups won out in Syria because they were better fighters with more strategic vision.
Although the president was widely excoriated for damaging U.S. credibility by not following through on his “red line” remark on the use of chemical weapons, a 2013 U.S.-Russian agreement to destroy Syria’s chemical weapon arsenal was hugely important to long-term regional stability. The “red line” comment was not an enunciation of policy, and the deal was perfectly consistent with Obama’s assertion that he would not sit by if the regime was to use chemical weapons.
While the mission to rid Syria of all its chemical weapons came up short, it did dramatically lighten the regime’s arsenal. Suppose that instead of reaching the agreement with Russia, the U.S. began an earnest effort to overthrow the Assad regime. Filling the vacuum would have been radical militias, like the Islamic State, who were ascendant in 2013 and would have scrambled for control of the chemical weapons arsenal, threatening the entire Middle East.
In deciding to intervene in Libya in 2011, Obama failed to apply the lessons of the Iraq War. While Moammar Gadhafi may be gone, it’s arguable that the country is even worse off than under his rule. With the exception of Tunisia, throughout the region, regime changes sparked by the Arab Awakening have only resulted in new or reinforced authoritarian regimes, brutal conflict and anomie. Why would Syria have been any different? If the U.S. had toppled the Assad regime, who would have filled the vacuum? Even before the civil war, the Syrian opposition was weak and hopelessly divided, and the ensuing conflict only deepened those divisions.
For a president who won the Nobel Peace Prize and decried the Washington playbook, Obama resorted to military force far too often. In Syria, however, he believed it was his responsibility to ensure the U.S. was not bogged down in another Middle East war.
Washington’s foreign policy establishment continually fails to learn an important lesson: There are limits to American power, and American engagement does not necessarily result in desirable outcomes. It’s a point that is clearly lost on those who continually call for American military engagement to solve the all the world’s problems.
The Syrian civil war has been an utter tragedy. If anything, the Obama administration should have done much more to address the refugee crisis that is wreaking havoc across the Middle East and Europe. The temptation to intervene in situations like the Syrian civil war is humane and understandable. But, in these thorny cases, leaders with circumspection are vital to preventing further conflagration. Fortunately, President Obama was able to do just that and keep the U.S. out of Syria.
With President Trump promising enhanced cooperation with Russia to battle the Islamic State, we can only hope that moving forward the U.S. does not entangle itself in the Syrian quagmire.
Adam Gallagher is a writer and analyst focusing on U.S. foreign policy. He is a senior writer for Tropics of Meta and has his work has appeared in The American Prospect, The Huffington Post, The National Interest, The Diplomat, International Policy Digest, Mondoweiss and for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, among other outlets. He has been an officially accredited election observer in Tunisia (2014) and Myanmar (2015). Follow him on Twitter @aegallagher10.
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