Obama’s debacle in Syria

President Obama and his foreign policy team made a huge effort not to get involved in Libya, but in the end they were dragged into military action by the French and the British, and other allies.

A similar effort not to get involved is currently underway with respect to Syria, following a well-rehearsed script, and is leading Obama toward another foreign-policy debacle.

Michael Young, the well-known columnist and Opinion Editor of The Daily Star (Beirut), has just published an op-ed piece on Washington’s approach on Syria which is caustic, accurate, and illuminating on the depth of the policy vacuum in Washington. See Michael Young, “Washington’s Syria policy is imaginary,” The Daily Star (Beirut), February 23, 2012.

Young writes,

The administration of President Barack Obama has often been ridiculed for what it describes as “leading from behind.” More often than not this has been an excuse for not leading at all, and nowhere has American vacillation been more on display than in Syria.

For instance, it is the United States that has lent credence to accusations by the Syrian regime that Al-Qaeda is assisting the Syrian opposition. Last week, the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he believed Al-Qaeda in Iraq had infiltrated Syrian opposition groups, and was behind bombings in Damascus and Aleppo. Clapper needn’t have made that statement publicly….

Clapper, it will be recalled, is the same official who predicted last spring, at an extraordinarily unfortunate moment, that Qaddafi was likely to prevail in the conflict in Libya.

After reviewing the hesitancies and contradictions in the statements and positions emanating from U.S. administration officials, Young observes the following:

There are no easy answers in Syria, but Washington’s trouble is that it has no strategy for the country. This is proving very damaging indeed, given that the Russians and Iranians do have one, and it can be summarized quite simply: Actively support the repression by the Syrian army and security services, bringing the opposition, or a portion of the opposition, to the negotiating table. Introduce reforms, albeit cosmetic reforms, to return the political initiative to Assad. Integrate willing opposition figures into a national unity government, thereby neutralizing the discontent on the ground. And give the regime the latitude to govern again, in order to snuff out pockets of dissent.

This scheme is unlikely to work, but at least it is straightforward. Moscow and Tehran have dispatched military and intelligence units to Syria to impose their will. There are reports that the U.S. has also sent people into Syria to organize the Syrian opposition, but apparently in numbers so infinitesimal as to be virtually useless.(emphasis added)

Young points to the costs of American drift and indecision:

A Syrian civil war is a fearful prospect, but American indecision is not going to prevent one from taking place. If Washington and the Europeans dither, the Gulf states won’t, and weapons will enter Syria anyway, as they already are. Better for the Obama administration to devise a political approach that embraces, while also controlling, a military dimension that would push Assad to reconsider his options.

The starting point for any resolution in Syria must be the departure of the current regime. A transitional project can be a modified form of the Arab League plan, with guarantees to Syria’s minorities. Russia must be brought into the effort, perhaps with assurances that its interests will be looked after in a post-Assad Syria, because its backing is what is truly propping up the Syrian leadership.

Washington needs to get a grip. Its policy toward Syria has been strangely disconnected from its other regional priority, namely containing Iran. It took many months for the administration to acknowledge the Syrian crisis as a major issue. By insisting, on the record and off, that there is nothing they can do in Syria, American officials have effectively ensured that they will do nothing. Their performance has been craven and one-dimensional – in a word, pathetic.

We are witnessng the same lack of leadership that Obama manifested during the Libyan crisis. There he was fortunate that France and Britain led the way, and ultimately NATO and the international community prevailed. In Syria, his inaction is more likely to lead to prolonged conflict, with increasing risks that the explosive and unpredictable mixture of Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iran, at a time when Israel may be considering a strike on Iran to take out its nuclear facilities, could ignite.

In the end, inaction may constitute the most undesirable action from among Obama’s present options.

The Trenchant Observer