The sor­row and the pity in Syria

Iran in­tends to in­cor­po­rate the bru­tal­ized Arab land into its ver­sion of a caliphate

The Washington Times Daily - - COMMENTARY - By Clif­ford D. May Clif­ford D. May is pres­i­dent of the Foun­da­tion for De­fense of Democ­ra­cies and a colum­nist for The Wash­ing­ton Times.

Over the last five years, Syria has been de­scend­ing into a hell on Earth. Over the last four months, the low­est depths of the in­ferno have been on dis­play in Aleppo, an an­cient city, once among the most di­verse and dy­namic in the Mid­dle East. On Fri­day, in the fi­nal press con­fer­ence of his pres­i­dency, Barack Obama ad­dressed this stil­lun­fold­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian and strate­gic catas­tro­phe.

“So with re­spect to Syria,” he said, “what I have con­sis­tently done is taken the best course that I can to try to end the civil war while hav­ing also to take into ac­count the long-term na­tional se­cu­rity in­ter­ests of the United States.”

An es­ti­mated 500,000 dead, 11 mil­lion dis­placed, mil­lions more liv­ing in fear, sor­row and piti­ful poverty, Ira­nian forces backed by Rus­sian forces oc­cu­py­ing the heart of the Arab world — yet no-drama Mr. Obama re­mains so ca­sual, so con­fi­dent that the de­ci­sions he’s made were “the best” and, what’s more, that he made them “con­sis­tently.” Is re­fus­ing to change one’s mind as con­di­tions worsen and poli­cies fail re­ally a virtue?

To bol­ster his case, the pres­i­dent em­pha­sized that he has spent lots of time — “if you tal­lied it up, days and weeks” — at­tend­ing meet­ings on Syria. “We went through ev­ery op­tion in painful de­tail with maps,” he said, “and we had our mil­i­tary and we had our aid agen­cies and we had our di­plo­matic teams, and some­times, we’d bring in out­siders who were crit­ics of ours.” Imag­ine that: painful de­tail, maps, aid agen­cies, even crit­i­cal out­siders.

Count me among those not con­vinced. In 2011, dur­ing that hope­ful mo­ment known as the Arab Spring, peace­ful pro­test­ers took to the streets of Da­m­as­cus. The dy­nas­tic dic­ta­tor Bashar As­sad re­sponded bru­tally. Be­fore long, a civil war was ig­nited.

Mr. Obama’s top ad­vis­ers rec­om­mended as­sist­ing non-Is­lamist and na­tion­al­ist rebels — not with the prover­bial boots on the prover­bial ground but with se­cure com­mu­ni­ca­tions de­vices, money, weapons and train­ing. Mr. Obama re­jected that ad­vice. He had done the math: Mr. As­sad, a mem­ber of the Alaw­ite mi­nor­ity, hadn’t enough loyal troops to pre­vail against Syria’s in­sur­gent Sunni ma­jor­ity. So the fall of the As­sad regime had to be both in­evitable and im­mi­nent.

What that failed to take into ac­count: Iran’s theocrats would send in foreign Shia fight­ers, in­clud­ing those of Hezbol­lah, their Le­banese proxy, all un­der the lead­er­ship of their Is­lamic Revo­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps. Vladimir Putin also would de­ploy forces in sup­port of the As­sad regime. We can sur­mise his rea­sons: to have a Mediter­ranean port for his navy; to re-es­tab­lish Rus­sia’s in­flu­ence in the Mid­dle East; to show the world that, un­like Mr. Obama, he does not aban­don his friends; to di­min­ish Amer­i­can cred­i­bil­ity and pres­tige.

Mr. Obama’s re­sponse was, as it so of­ten is, mainly rhetor­i­cal. He warned Mr. Putin that he was step­ping into a quag­mire. He pro­claimed, as so he of­ten does, that there can be “no mil­i­tary so­lu­tion.”

The Rus­sian pres­i­dent, a prod­uct of the KGB rather than the fac­ulty lounge, knew that was non­sense. In the Mid­dle East, the law of the jun­gle trumps in­ter­na­tional law ev­ery time.

Hav­ing ac­cused Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush of over­reach, Mr. Obama adopted a pol­icy that might be called un­der­reach. He de­cided not to en­force the “red line” he had de­clared against Mr. As­sad’s use of chem­i­cal weapons. He de­cided not to elim­i­nate Mr. As­sad’s air power, which would have ended the bar­rel-bomb­ing of civil­ians. He wasn’t even will­ing to help es­tab­lish “safe zones” where in­no­cent Syr­i­ans might stand a chance to de­fend them­selves.

I know: Mr. Obama saw his mis­sion as end­ing wars and cer­tainly not risk­ing ad­di­tional Amer­i­can en­tan­gle­ments. And he is among those who be­lieve that the pro­jec­tion of Amer­i­can power gen­er­ally does more harm than good.

Not mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive is the the­ory that he had a spe­cific goal in mind: to bring Iran’s rulers into a strate­gic part­ner­ship with the United States. To achieve that, he had to demon­strate that he re­spected what he has called their “equities” in Syria. Were he to take ac­tion against Mr. As­sad, the Is­lamic republic’s en­voys might walk away from the ta­ble where they were ne­go­ti­at­ing the nu­clear weapons deal Mr. Obama en­vi­sioned as his great foreign pol­icy legacy.

The pres­i­dent has been noth­ing if not “con­sis­tent” in his pur­suit of de­tente with Iran’s Is­lamic rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies. In all like­li­hood, that is what ex­plains his de­ci­sion, just after tak­ing of­fice, to turn a blind eye to the cler­i­cal regime’s ruth­less re­pres­sion of the Green Move­ment that took to the streets of Ira­nian ci­ties fol­low­ing a rigged pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in 2009.

His­tory will record that th­ese ef­forts failed. Nixon went to China. Mr. Obama will not be go­ing to Iran — or to Syria, which Iran in­tends to in­cor­po­rate into its ver­sion of a caliphate (which Shia call an “ima­mate”).

“Aleppo,” U.S. Am­bas­sador Sa­man­tha Power said last week at the U.N., “will join the ranks of those events in world his­tory that de­fine mod­ern evil, that stain our con­science decades later. Hal­abja, Rwanda, Sre­brenica, and, now, Aleppo. To the As­sad regime, Rus­sia, and Iran, your forces and prox­ies are car­ry­ing out th­ese crimes.”

She went on to ask: “Are you truly in­ca­pable of shame? Is there lit­er­ally noth­ing that can shame you? Is there no act of bar­barism against civil­ians, no ex­e­cu­tion of a child that gets un­der your skin?”

Would it be un­fair to sug­gest that the an­swers to th­ese ques­tions should have been ap­par­ent to her and the pres­i­dent years ago? Had that been the case, per­haps they would have for­mu­lated dif­fer­ent poli­cies and im­ple­mented a dif­fer­ent course of ac­tion. Or per­haps not.

In the Mid­dle East, the law of the jun­gle trumps in­ter­na­tional law ev­ery time.


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