Syrian carnage likely to outlast Obama

Syrian carnage likely to outlast Obama
© Getty

A new wave of violence is virtually ensuring that Syria will be a stain on President Obama’s foreign policy legacy, with the civil war there likely to outlast his time in office. 

The unraveling of a diplomatic ceasefire in recent days, followed by some of the worst attacks yet on the city of Aleppo, magnified the failures of the United States and other world powers to stem the chaos of the six-year-long civil war. The conflict has left an estimated 400,000 people dead and scattered millions of refugees across the globe.

ADVERTISEMENT

“I think that Syria will be the biggest foreign policy black mark on the president’s legacy — perhaps the biggest black mark on his legacy overall,” said Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. 

It’s been more than five years since Obama first called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to leave office.

Time and time again, Obama has taken steps to pressure Assad and stem the violence in Syria, only to see the effort fall apart.  

“Syria is just an absolute failure in terms of the goals that were outlined by the president,” Tabler said.

Despite the shocking human toll, the Syrian conflict has received scant attention in the U.S., where media coverage is focused squarely the presidential race.  

The civil war is virtually certain to continue beyond Obama’s time in office, creating an early test for Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDershowitz: 'Too many politicians are being subject to criminal prosecution' The 13 Republicans needed to pass gun-control legislation Democrats spar over electoral appeal of 'Medicare for All' MORE or Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHarris bashes Kavanaugh's 'sham' nomination process, calls for his impeachment after sexual misconduct allegation Celebrating 'Hispanic Heritage Month' in the Age of Trump Let's not play Charlie Brown to Iran's Lucy MORE. But neither candidate has talked much about the war; Syria was only mentioned once during Monday’s presidential debate.  

The events of the past three weeks make the role of the next president abundantly clear.   

After months of diplomatic negotiations, the U.S. and Russia announced a tentative ceasefire in September to halt the violence and allow for the delivery of humanitarian aid. 

Russia would use its influence on the regime of Assad to keep up its end of the deal, while the U.S. would press on opposition groups. After the killing subsided, both sides would work together to target extremist groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and affiliates of al Qaeda.

Days after it was announced, the deal started to come apart.

Over the last week, Russia has backed the Syrian government in a ferocious assault on the city of Aleppo, which was once Syria’s largest metropolis with a population of 2 million people.

The rebel-controlled east of the city has undergone some of the worst fighting of the years-long civil war. In a single day last week, activists reported at least 250 airstrikes. Food and medical supplies are dwindling.

According to analysts, the Syrian government is effectively hoping to chase residents out of the rebel-controlled areas or else exterminate them.

“The situation in Aleppo really captures the major crisis and the devil’s dilemma of the conflict, in that Russia and the Assad regime are convinced that they can win this war even if it takes them many years,” said Nicholas Heras, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

“And there’s no pressure from the international community to protect the population.” 

U.S. officials say they’re reassessing their policy and considering new options to stop the Russian and Syrian bombing campaign. But people outside the administration do not expect much to change. 

Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken testified on Capitol Hill Thursday that agencies are coming up with new ways to end the conflict, but he declined to say what those options might be. 

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerTrump announces, endorses ambassador to Japan's Tennessee Senate bid Meet the key Senate player in GOP fight over Saudi Arabia Trump says he's 'very happy' some GOP senators have 'gone on to greener pastures' MORE (R-Tenn.) offered to hold a classified hearing to allow administration officials to present its “Plan B.” 

Blinken would only say that Obama has asked all federal agencies “to put forward options. Some familiar, some new that we are very actively reviewing.”

“When we are able to work through these in the days ahead, we'll have an opportunity to come back and talk about them in detail, but we're in the process of doing that,” he added. 

Analysts have compared the crisis in Syria to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, during which as many as 1 million people were killed. The slaughter occurred during Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonWords matter, except to Democrats, when it involves impeaching Trump Appeals court allows Trump emoluments case to move forward Trump commemorates 9/11 with warning to Taliban MORE’s presidency and inspired a generation of foreign policy leaders to adopt an aggressive posture toward foreign military intervention. 

Obama recently told presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin that the Syrian conflict “haunts me constantly.” 

“I would say of all the things that have happened during the course of my presidency, the knowledge that you have hundreds of thousands of people who have been killed, millions who have been displaced, [makes me] ask myself what might I have done differently along the course of the last five, six years,” he said.  

Obama has rejected the notion that modest tweaks in U.S. policy — such as arming more Syrian rebels or a military strike to take out Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile — could have brought an end to the conflict.

“The conventional arguments about what could have been done are wrong,” Obama said. “All those things I tend to be skeptical about.”

The president argues that short of a large-scale military intervention, which he is unwilling to stomach, there’s little the U.S. could do militarily in to stop the civil war.

The calculus has grown increasingly complicated over the last year, as Russia has sought to protect Assad, its sole ally in the region.

Critics now argue less about what the Obama administration is doing, saying the U.S. missed a window to act years ago, when it could have been more effective in helping the rebels fight.

“I think we missed an opportunity,” said Edward Djerejian, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria who now heads Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

“Had we done that, would we have a solution in Syria today? No. But I think we would have been in a much better situation without creating such a vacuum that Daesh established itself in Syria and Iraq,” he added, using an alternate name for ISIS.

“You have this really confused policy towards Syria today that’s, quite frankly, leading practically nowhere.”