Will Barack Obama's inaction in Syria tarnish his legacy?
by Brent Bambury (@notrexmurphy)
When Barack Obama delivered his farewell address in Chicago on Tuesday, he boasted about his accomplishments, among them the Iran nuclear deal and the killing of Osama bin Laden. His audience cheered him on. His supporters have already concluded Obama's presidency was a landmark and a success.
Obama told the crowd that people like him serve to make other people's lives better.
But that didn't happen for the people of Syria. For three quarters of Obama's presidency, the country was convulsed by war. Civilians died by the hundreds of thousands. Refugees, millions of them, fled the chaos while those who stayed faced sectarian warfare, aerial bombings, even the use of chemical weapons. Many were convinced the world had forgotten them.
Frederick Hof says the Syrian conflict will be a profound weight on the legacy of America's 44th president.
"I think there is a moral failing," he told me on CBC Day 6.
Doing it on the cheap
Ambassador Frederic C. Hof was the U.S. State Department's special advisor for transition in Syria. He was made special ambassador by President Obama in 2012. Today he's the Director of the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
Hof says Obama's failure to act in Syria has devalued the West's pledge to prevent genocide.
"I think that it renders almost meaningless this stock expression used by politicians whenever they discuss genocide or mass homicide, the whole expression of 'Never Again.' I think that's been really, really marginalized."
Last December, as Obama defended his policy on Syria, he claimed large numbers of U.S. ground troops were required to stabilize the region, that Iran and Russia had interests to defend, and that there was no international mandate for an American occupation.
"And in that circumstance, unless we were all in and willing to take over Syria, we were going to have problems," Obama said. "It was going to be impossible to do this on the cheap."
Frederick Hof says Obama's justification is "inadequate."
"I think there are several things the United States could have done well short of invading Syria, well short of occupying Syria, that could have exacted a price of those who were very much in the business of pounding civilian neighbourhoods, including hospitals, marketplaces, schools and all the rest."
Hof says Obama's case for avoiding an occupation is a straw man argument.
"Nobody I know of who's been critical of Obama's administration policy in Syria has counseled trying to stabilize the country through invasion and occupation, as was the case in Iraq and certainly in Afghanistan. This has not been the issue," Hof says.
"The issue has been one of trying to complicate the task of those who have focused on civilian slaughter, on mass civilian homicide, that has been absolutely unopposed."
Options and risks
Hof says State Department employees who dissented from Obama's position presented reasonable alternatives for U.S. action in Syria.
"These were options having to do with, for example, providing some air defense equipment to Syrian rebels, carefully vetted, options having to do with hitting helicopter bases with cruise missiles. None of this — none of it — would have required the invasion and occupation of Syria."
I asked him how those actions would be seen by Iran and Russia. Was there a risk of escalating the conflict?
"You know when we look at risks, there are risks in all of this. There's no doubt about that. And this is why the President of the United States gets paid the big bucks so to speak — to evaluate risks."
"Yes, there could have been risks involving confrontation with the Russians. Those risks still exist as aircraft from the United States and Russia often occupy the same airspace. But I think one has to take into account the fact that the Russians would have to evaluate risk. The Assad regime would have to evaluate risk."
"One need not take the entire risk on one's own shoulders and therefore conclude that nothing can be done."
A decline of influence, an emboldened Russia
Hof is hopeful the ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey will be stabilized by peace talks in Kazakhstan on January 23.
"Certainly the civilian slaughter has been dialled back over the last couple of weeks."
But Hof doesn't see the U.S. playing a key role in the next round of diplomacy.
"The United States did not bring to its diplomatic effort in Syria, regrettably, a great deal of leverage, a great deal of influence — not much of anything, frankly, in the way of an 'or else'. I suspect that the best course for the United States right now is one of supporting the Turkish-Russian initiative, seeing where it can go."
And Hof says the effect of Obama's passivity extends far beyond the borders of Syria and its neighbours.
"It would not surprise me at all to learn in the fullness of time that some of the aggressive action that Russian President Vladimir Putin is undertaking in Europe with respect to Ukraine, Crimea, all the rest, was instructed perhaps by the 2013 Red Line incident in which the president made it very, very clear that the Syrian government should not cross the threshold of using chemical weaponry against its own citizens and then backed away from the use of force against Syria."
"So I think the essential problem is that what has happened in Syria has not stayed in Syria. And this, unfortunately, will weigh on the historic legacy of President Barack Obama."