The Syria conflict is impossibly complicated. It has elements of sectarian violence, in which the ruling Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, is at war against the country’s Sunni Muslim majority. It’s also a larger proxy war with players like Saudi Arabia, which would like to establish a Sunni-friendly regime to improve their bid for regional hegemony against Iran; Hezbollah, which sees the survival of Assad’s regime as crucial to its own survival; and Israel, who just wants to see both sides of the conflict bled dry.
America’s involvement complicates things further because our interests appear to primarily be focused around the defense of international norms rather than a geopolitical conquest. And that would be a fairly easy political objective to achieve if the intelligence community could draw a simple black and white comparison between the good guys and the bad guys on the ground. Unfortunately, while the Assad loyalists are surely no friend to the U.S., many of the rebels fighting against him have aligned themselves with Al-Qaeda. By arming the rebels America risks putting weapons in the hands of some of its most dangerous enemies.
This is a situation that demands incredible leadership, a well-thought-out plan, and deft political maneuvering. President Obama has displayed none of those three qualities, instead appearing to be completely overmatched by the conflict.
The United States stands at the doorstep of war in no small part because of President Obama’s carelessness with words. Two years ago he haughtily declared that Assad must go. Last year he said that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that would lead to a swift change in the United State’s involvement. And in the subsequent year none of his security advisers told the president that those are completely different, and in many ways contradictory, goals.
White House press secretary Jay Carney tried to clear things up in a recent press conference by ruling out a military effort to oust Assad. “The options that we are considering are not about regime change,” Carney told reporters.
“We have stated it for a long time, that there is no military solution available here, that the way to bring about a better future in Syria is through negotiation and political resolution,” he continued.
“After a decade of conflict, the American people are tired of war,” Kerry said. “But fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility.” He said that “history would judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turned a blind eye to a dictator’s wanton use of weapons of mass destruction against all warnings.”
The public was not convinced. Massive amounts of opposition poured into the White House, protests erupted, military leaders leaked word that they were none too pleased, and a bipartisan majority united behind the notion that Congressional approval was needed before any military intervention.
Just a day after Kerry’s impassioned remarks urging swift retaliation the Obama Administration backed down. In a astonishing, if admirable, change of course, Obama pledged to seek Congress’ authorization. But the damage had already been done.
“This stunning zigzag, following months of hesitation, ambivalence, contradiction and studied delay, left our regional allies shocked and our enemies gleeful,” Charles Krauthammer wrote in the Washington Post. “[I]t was inconceivable that, instead of recalling Congress to emergency session, Obama would simply place everything in suspension while Congress finished its Labor Day barbecues and he flew off to Stockholm and St. Petersburg. So much for the fierce urgency of enforcing an international taboo and speaking for the dead children of Damascus.”
Syria’s government was emboldened by the announcement. State-run newspaper, Al Thawra, labeled it “the start of the historic American retreat,” and claimed Obama’s hesitation arose from a “sense of implicit defeat and the disappearance of his allies.” Syrian opposition leaders were likewise stunned and angry. Samir Nachar, a member of Syria’s National Coalition, called Obama a “weak president who cannot make the right decision when it comes to such an urgent crisis.”
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