Blue vs. White: Obama's handling of Syria
Lack of clear strategy has diminshed U.S. standing in the world
Published: Friday, September 20, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, September 24, 2013 19:09
President Barack Obama’s handling of the Syrian Civil War provides considerable evidence for the assertion that the United States’ influence on international affairs has been diminished under his presidency. Since the war’s inception in spring 2011, the administration failed to create coherent strategy to respond to the conflict, and instead avoided setting specific policy.
In August of last year, Obama stated that a “red line” for which the United States would take greater action would be if the Assad regime utilized chemical weapons or began “moving them around.” Just one month later, it was reported that the Syrian military began moving its chemical weapons from the capital city of Damascus to the port city Tartus. And more recently, on August 21, more than 1,000 Syrian civilians died as a result of a chemical weapons attack, and this time, unlike in previous incidents, there is little doubt among the U.S. and its allies that the Syrian government was the responsible party.
This left Obama with a responsibility to do something, given the “red line” he had established a year prior. The White House decided that targeted attacks on Syrian military targets was the best strategy, and thus, their next move was to attempt to persuade the American people that the U.S. has a duty to enforce “international norms” on chemical weapons. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a speech on August 30 that U.S. action is necessary “to ensure that a despot’s brutal and flagrant use of chemical weapons is held accountable.”
Contrary to their previous assertions, the goal here was not to change the tide of the war. Mere “small” strikes would be launched—according to Kerry “unbelievably small”—only to enforce a chemical weapons ban. So while Russia’s central goal is ensuring Assad retains power, the U.S.’ only motivation is upholding international law.
The very next day, the President delivered a speech in the Rose Garden, where he called for congressional approval for any military action. West Wing staff was reportedly displeased with this, as they well knew the implausibility of successfully passing a resolution. One week later, after Kerry and various other administration officials appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the whip count in favor of passing a resolution was not even close, and the President had to make the determination if he should outright ignore the will of Congress and the public and take action unilaterally.
Perhaps the most pivotal moment in the entire series of events came when Kerry said on September 9 that the only way an American-led attack could be averted is if Assad “turns over every bit of his chemical weapons…within the next week. But…it can’t be done, obviously.” The administration soon rushed to correct his “off-the-cuff” comments.
Then, over the course of the week, President Putin of Russia worked out a deal with the United States and the Syrian regime—that if Assad’s chemical weapons are removed or destroyed by 2014, no U.S. strike would occur. The deal was finalized Saturday morning. Something that Kerry called “impossible” apparently is the plan.
Consequently, Assad, despite his use of chemical weapons to kill 1,000-plus people and conventional weapons which killed tens of thousands more, will retain power, virtually unscathed.
He even issued an ultimatum to the U.S.—that if we do not halt supplying the rebel army with arms (which likely will not occur), he would not agree to the terms of the agreement. And even if he does accept the agreement, many experts have even said that destroying his chemical weapons arsenal in the midst of a raging ground war is immensely difficult.
To conclude, Obama’s sophomoric handling of the situation is but a microcosm of his overall failures on foreign policy. The oft-used phrased “leading from behind” describes perfectly his dealing with Syria. Putin, who has been the principal ally of Assad, took advantage of a U.S. president who backed himself so far into a corner that he would seize any opportunity to escape further embarrassment.
The President asserted that the U.S. would not tolerate use of chemical weapons last year, for months had argued that the ousting of Assad must be the basis for any negotiations, and then negotiated with Russia anyway, without any serious repercussions for the Syrian dictator. In the end, he was able to escape a self-imposed debacle at the expense of America’s reputation.