The Syr­ian fire will con­tinue to burn

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Michael Ger­son

— Want a good mea­sure of how de­graded the pres­i­den­tial for­eign pol­icy de­bate has be­come? Over the last four years, Amer­ica has largely been a by­stander in the largest strate­gic and hu­man­i­tar­ian dis­as­ter of our time — the col­lapse of sovereignty in Syria, pro­duc­ing 5 mil­lion refugees, caus­ing more than 300,000 deaths and em­pow­er­ing some of the most vi­cious, to­tal­i­tar­ian nut jobs in the world.

But what is the cri­tique from both Donald Trump and Bernie San­ders? That Amer­ica is over­com­mit­ted, es­pe­cially in the Mid­dle East. Trump in par­tic­u­lar has ar­gued that Amer­ica is a pa­thetic debtor coun­try that must get its own house in or­der be­fore en­gag­ing in na­tion-build­ing. “We can­not go around to ev­ery coun­try that we’re not ex­actly happy with,” Trump said re­cently, “and say we’re go­ing to recre­ate [them].”

This has hardly been Obama’s temp­ta­tion. His mo­ti­va­tion be­ing ... what? A de­ter­mi­na­tion to be the anti-Bush? Se­rial in­de­ci­sion? The pivot to Asia? For what­ever rea­son, Obama has con­sis­tently filed action in Syria un­der the cat­e­gory of “stupid stuff,” of­ten over­rul­ing the more for­ward-lean­ing views of his se­nior for­eign pol­icy ad­vis­ers (in­clud­ing Sec­re­tary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton). Tamara Cof­man Wittes of the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion re­cently tes­ti­fied be­fore the Se­nate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee that “in­cre­men­tal steps over the last four years to shape both the bat­tle­field and the con­text for diplo­macy” have been “too lit­tle and too late to al­ter the con­flict’s fun­da­men­tal dy­nam­ics.”

What have been those dy­nam­ics? The regime of Bashar As­sad, once tee­ter­ing on the brink of de­struc­tion, has been saved by Ira­nian and Rus­sian mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tions. Early on, ji­hadist groups in Syria be­came the most se­ri­ous, well-equipped op­po­si­tion to the regime, forc­ing ri­vals off the field and rais­ing a long-term ter­ror­ist threat. As­sad has com­mit­ted mass atroc­i­ties with im­punity, so long as he doesn’t use chem­i­cal weapons again (though his vic­tims end up just as dead by other meth­ods). To avoid re­spon­si­bil­ity for this night­mare, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has tried to nar­row the def­i­ni­tion of U.S. in­ter­ests. What re­ally mat­ters is re­mov­ing As­sad’s chem­i­cal weapons. Or the Ira­nian nu­clear agree­ment. Or killing ter­ror­ists with drones and spe­cial op­er­a­tions. Any­thing else is, ac­cord­ing to Obama, “some­one else’s civil war.”

If Obama loses sleep over the sit­u­a­tion, he gives no pub­lic in­di­ca­tion. On the con­trary, he of­ten con­grat­u­lates him­self on the cool­ness and re­al­ism


of his judg­ment on Syria (declar­ing him­self “very proud” of his de­ci­sion not to en­force the chem­i­cal weapons “red line”). But this is the kind of thing — like the Rwan­dan geno­cide for Bill Clin­ton — that Obama will be left ex­plain­ing for the du­ra­tion of his post-pres­i­dency. Dur­ing the Obama years, per­pe­tra­tors have been given a clear mes­sage: Mass atroc­i­ties work, at least if you have faith­ful spon­sors and half­hearted en­e­mies.

Though ne­go­ti­a­tions are on­go­ing, a gen­uine set­tle­ment dur­ing Obama’s pres­i­dency is un­likely. Peace agree­ments cod­ify a bal­ance of power; they don’t usu­ally cre­ate a new one. “With­out greater mil­i­tary pres­sure on the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment,” for­mer Am­bas­sador to Syria Robert Ford told the Se­nate hear­ing, “it will not ne­go­ti­ate a com­pro­mise po­lit­i­cal set­tle­ment.” Sec­re­tary of State John Kerry still tries to huff and puff about a mil­i­tary op­tion: “If Pres­i­dent As­sad has come to a con­clu­sion that there’s no Plan B, then he’s come to a con­clu­sion that is to­tally with­out foun­da­tion what­so­ever and even dan­ger­ous.” No one thinks there is a Plan B. No one.

Years of in­ac­tion have nar­rowed Amer­i­can op­tions. Would the U.S. re­ally risk a mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion with Rus­sia to en­force a no-fly zone? But any kind of rap­proche­ment with As­sad would be both im­moral and point­less. He will never have the le­git­i­macy to re­unify and re­build a coun­try he burned to the ground. This leaves (1) more ag­gres­sive sup­port for non-rad­i­cal op­po­si­tion to As­sad and for bor­der­ing coun­tries, (2) help­ing lib­er­ated com­mu­ni­ties with gov­er­nance and ser­vice de­liv­ery as an al­ter­na­tive to the ji­hadists, (3) outreach to trau­ma­tized refugee chil­dren who are at risk of rad­i­cal­iza­tion, and, most im­por­tantly, (4) aban­don­ing Obama’s self-serv­ing and de­struc­tive ar­gu­ment that the only al­ter­na­tives in Syria are in­ac­tion or oc­cu­pa­tion.

The the­ory — prac­ticed by Obama and en­dorsed by Trump — that the Syr­ian con­flict will some­how burn it­self out has been a se­cu­rity de­ba­cle and a hu­man­i­tar­ian catas­tro­phe. When Amer­ica re­fuses to play an ac­tive role, the nat­u­ral re­sult is a re­gional Shia/ Sunni proxy war, ex­ploited by Iran and Rus­sia to ex­pand their in­flu­ence and by ji­hadists to ex­pand their ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

And still, the pop­ulists of right and left ar­gue — cal­lously and fool­ishly — that Amer­ica does too much.

Michael Ger­son is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at michael­ger­son@wash­

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