Ten years ago, demonstrations against the dictator of Syria spiraled into one of the greatest humanitarian and geopolitical catastrophes of the last quarter century, the effects of which are still being felt today. Even though the disaster is, in many respects, still unfolding, the decade mark is an occasion to look back at what went wrong—the colossal misjudgments, the policy errors, and the hibernation of the free world’s conscience. Western foreign policy officials failed to resolve or contain the crisis—and few of them are willing to admit their mistakes. Rather, some of the individuals responsible for the failures of the Obama administration are filling the ranks of the new Biden administration.
Syria was late to the Arab Spring. In early 2011, protests engulfed much of North Africa and the Middle East, but the Syrian streets remained relatively quiet. Then, on March 15, 2011—ten years ago today—major protests erupted in Damascus and Aleppo. The proximate cause was the arrest and torture of a group of school children for anti-regime graffiti. The protesters demanded the release of political prisoners and an end to Bashar al-Assad’s rule.
Of course, Assad didn’t relinquish power. Instead, he has fought his way through this century’s bloodiest conflict. Once again, “never again” was to prove a self-congratulatory illusion.
We Could ‘Do Business’ With Him
The son of the previous dictator, Bashar al-Assad came to power in 2000. (His older brother had been expected to succeed their father but had died in a car crash in 1994.) Unlike other Arab autocrats, Assad wore suits and ties. He spoke English well. His British-born wife didn’t cover her hair. So Western leaders hailed him as a “reformer” and lavished praise on him. Convinced the Arab world couldn’t do better than “progressive” tyrants, Western leaders made shady deals with his regime, enriching their economies while lining the dictator’s pockets and solidifying his rule.
Successive American administrations had made nice with the Assad clan, mostly for marginal concessions—keeping Syria from going to war with Israel, and cooperation for the Israeli-Palestinian peace folly. Bashar was, if not especially likable, at least a stable figure in an unstable region. Even after he began funneling Islamist militants into Iraq after the American invasion, then-Sen. John Kerry and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi labeled him “a man we could do business with.”
The Red Line of Fecklessness
Once the protests began in the spring of 2011, President Barack Obama declared, “Assad must go”—but he made it clear that the United States would not intervene. Assad’s forces soon started shooting the protesters. Civil war was inevitable.
In mid-2012, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and CIA Director David Petraeus provided President Obama with a plan to support the Free Syrian Army, the democratic rebels fighting the Assad regime. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was sympathetic. But Obama rejected the plan. He wanted to reduce America’s involvement in the world, especially the Middle East. As Syria became a bloodbath, he was unwilling to adjust his dogma.
Meanwhile, the Sunni Arab kingdoms, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar, were interested in Assad going, and they didn’t mind funding radical Islamists who shared that goal because they wanted to take over Syria themselves.
Assad was willing to do anything to stay in power and possessed a large stockpile of chemical weapons. (His nuclear program, built with North Korean advice and support, had been aborted after the Israelis destroyed a reactor in 2007.) This led Obama, more than a year into the slaughter, to tell the world:
I have, at this point, not ordered military engagement in the situation. But . . . we cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people. We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.
Obama’s threat was designed to deter Assad from using chemical weapons, but Assad took the “red line” as a green light to kill as many civilians as he wanted with conventional weapons. By the end of 2012, 60,000 people had been killed in the conflict.
Assad then called Obama’s bluff. In 2013, when a leaked State Department cable confirmed that Assad was using chemical weapons, Obama and his subordinates chose to ignore the evidence. Having broken through the “red line” without consequence, Assad dropped all restraint. He began using chemical weapons more openly and more often. The Obama administration officially acknowledged the attacks in a report to Congress. The Europeans, especially the French, pressured Obama to enforce his own red line.
Obama announced that he would seek congressional authorization to use force. Early whip counts suggested that many Democrats would vote against it, as would a faction of reflexively Obama-phobic Republicans whom Sen. John McCain dubbed “wacko birds”—including Marco Rubio, who had written an opinion article just a year earlier favoring intervention.
At the last minute, Obama pulled his request. He had accepted the offer of Russian President Vladimir Putin, an ally of Assad, to remove all of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles. America was to follow Russia’s lead.
America’s allies panicked. Obama’s vacillation had convinced them that America’s commitments were unreliable, and that plans for U.S.-led strikes against Assad had been rendered useless. Allied leaders were making phone calls to old friends in the U.S. government, telling them, “I guess we’re on our own now.”
This grim realization rippled far beyond the Syria conflict. Putin, recognizing that America had no stomach to enforce international norms, soon annexed Crimea. Russian mercenaries, and eventually regulars, began fighting in Donbass with separatists. Meanwhile, Iran entered Syria through Iraq, joined by Hezbollah. The money, arms, and experience that Hezbollah accumulated in Syria eventually led to the transformation of Lebanon’s imperfect democracy into a party-run state.
In 2015, Russia’s military also deployed to Syria, returning to the Middle East for the first time in half a century. America was out, Russia was in—and it and Iran were calling the shots.
‘We Can Do Business With Him’
Of course, Iran and Russia were less concerned about maintaining peace than advancing their own expansionist interests. They left plenty of room for the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS). The jihadi-salafist group, in its Syrian incarnation in the 2010s, was made up largely of returning Syrian expats whom Assad’s father had exiled. Having fought in Iraq against America, they were experienced and well armed.
Obama’s reticence was also a factor in ISIL’s success in recruitment. Many of the Syrians who had joined the Free Syrian Army had democratic aspirations and looked to the West, especially America, for help. The Islamists told them that America didn’t care for Muslims, and, no matter how many Muslims were killed, America wouldn’t come to their rescue. (To the contrary, every American foreign intervention since 1991 had been on behalf of oppressed Muslims.) Non-enforcement of the “red line” proved them right and became a major recruitment tool.
All through 2012 and 2013, the democracy-minded opposition to Assad had no real international backing. But the Islamists had help. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, all eager to lead the Sunni world, courted the radicals and largely left the democratic rebels alone. Eventually, the democrats saw no choice but to join the better organized, better armed, and better funded Islamists.
Assad had gambled early that if the protesters radicalized, the West would see him as the lesser evil. (He had even released Islamists from his prisons in the early days of the revolution, calculating that he could justify suppressing a rebellion if he could associate it with radicalized Islamists, as his father had done in 1982.) His gamble paid off as the West redirected its attention from his horrifying mass murder toward ISIL’s horrifying mass murder. Some in Congress (and elsewhere in the United States and Europe) urged that saving Christians should be a U.S. priority—or even claimed that Assad should be seen as a defender of Christians. Even the Obama administration, which had called on Assad to step down, talked of accommodating Assad.
The only advocates for the Syrian people were humanitarian organizations. To distribute aid, however, they were required to disclose their recipients’ information to Syrian intelligence, the mukhabarat. Then, the mukhabarat would use the intelligence to crack down on the democratic opposition.
The Obama administration finally started an operation against ISIL in June 2014. Early on, the Assad-Hezbollah-Iran-Russia forces and the U.S.-led coalition tacitly agreed to separate spheres of influence against the Islamists. In reality, Americans were fighting ISIL, while the Syrians and their allies were cooperating with ISIL to target whatever was left of the democratic forces.
As the violence peaked in 2013, over ten thousand combatants and civilians were being killed every month. Millions of refugees fled Syria. The Obama administration considered admitting increased numbers of refugees, but every Republican governor co-signed a letter objecting to resettling them. Donald Trump demagogued the issue in 2015 during the presidential campaign. Obama decided not to spend the political capital fighting back, and so by early 2017 the United States had admitted only about 18,000 refugees.
But the millions of refugees had to go somewhere. The preponderance went to Turkey, where they remain to this day. Hundreds of thousands went into Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt. And hundreds of thousands more poured into Europe. Stories of sexual violence, including gang rape, dominated European newspapers. The Kremlin, always eager for a chance to fracture European societies, helped far-right groups exaggerate these reports. The stock of parties like Alternative for Germany and the National Front was rising. ISIL-inspired terrorist attacks accelerated concurrently, and the refugee issue dominated European politics, even spilling over into the Brexit debate (though refugees couldn’t travel to the U.K. without a visa).
All along, the Obama administration, spearheaded by Secretary of State John Kerry, insisted that the Syrian civil war had no military solution, but, contra Clausewitz, only a political one. Kerry was trying to broker a compromise with Assad when Assad had no reason to compromise. The dictator celebrated that the war was “self-cleansing” the nation of traitors. America had no leverage over him, especially as three militaries—Russia’s, Iran’s, and Hezbollah’s—were supporting him.
Which is to say, despite Kerry’s public proclamations, there was a way for military operations to turn the balance of the civil war in Syria. (Kerry even admitted as much in a leaked tape.) Russia found it. Iran found it. So did ISIL, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, and eventually Turkey. And they all pursued their aims in Syria with far less care for civilian casualties than the United States would have.
The Trump administration was not much better than the Obama administration. Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said in early 2017 that “getting Assad out” was no longer a priority. Five days later, a reassured Assad again gassed his people. A year later, Assad used chemical weapons again. To its credit, the Trump administration punished Assad both times. It also made blunders. After Trump abruptly announced a premature withdrawal over Twitter, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis resigned. Months later, the Islamist dictator of Turkey got permission from Trump to enter Syria to cleanse it from Kurds. For four years under Trump, Syria “policy” was a series of incoherent and impulsive reactions.
Lessons Not Learned
The Syrian conflict that began ten years ago today brought the terrorists out of their caves, Iran out of its borders, and Russia back to the Middle East and Europe. It ended Lebanon’s democratic experiment, however imperfect. Syria has burned to the ground. Assad extinguished half a million souls. Thirteen million people are displaced, half inside Syria and half unsettled elsewhere.
The United States could have acted to prevent this bloody calamity. Thanks to the Obama administration, it did not.
The last [i.e., Obama] administration has to acknowledge that we failed, not for want of trying, but we failed. We failed to prevent a horrific loss of life. We failed to prevent massive displacement of people internally in Syria and, of course, externally as refugees. And it’s something that I will take with me for the rest of my days. It’s something that I feel very strongly.
But Blinken is the exception. Other Obama alumni have defended that administration’s record.
Susan Rice was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations when the Syrian war broke out. She had previously held the Africa porfolio at the State Department and served on the National Security Council staff during the Clinton administration, when America stood by during the Rwandan genocide. In Obama’s second term, Rice became the national security advisor. In her memoir, she tried to dodge blame for Syria. She is now the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.
Samantha Power, who first rose to prominence for her book condemning the world’s idleness in response to ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia, replaced Rice as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations at the height of the crisis. She has directed blame for Syria at almost everyone but the administration she served in, which had the power to put an end to it. Power is Biden’s nominee to be the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, a position Biden elevated to a principal at the National Security Council.
Derek Chollet was the assistant secretary of defense with the Middle East portfolio from 2012 to 2014. Ever since, Chollet has defended Obama’s decision not to enforce his red line: “Far from a failure, the ‘red line’ episode accomplished everything it set out to do—in fact, it surpassed our expectations.” He is the new counselor of the State Department, with the rank of under secretary.
Robert Malley advised Obama on Middle East strategy and led the negotiations for the Iran deal. He has given at least a partial defense of the Obama administration’s actions: “We were giving enough support for the opposition to keep the war going and to, and to aggravate it, but not enough to end it. And I’m not arguing that we should have given more.” Malley is now the Biden administration’s envoy for Iran.
Lloyd Austin was the commander of Central Command from 2013 to 2016. In response to questions asked by Sen. McCain in a 2015 hearing, Austin made the case for inaction in Syria. McCain responded, “I have never seen a hearing that is as divorced from the reality of every outside expert and what you are saying.” Austin was recently sworn in as the 28th secretary of defense.
John Kerry, who had talked up the success of the peaceful removal of Assad’s chemical weapons, omitting that Assad continued to use them even after the Russian government had assured the world of their complete destruction, never succeeded in finding “a political solution” in Syria. He is now the Biden administration’s envoy for climate change and a principal member of the National Security Council.
President Obama himself called his decision not to enforce his red line a “proud moment.” Remembering Obama’s 2013 request for a congressional authorization for the use of military force, his adviser Ben Rhodes writes:
After we landed in Washington, Obama talked about the different ways in which the debate could play out. “The thing is,” he said, “if we lose this vote, it will drive a stake through the heart of neoconservatism—everyone will see they have no votes.” I realized then that he was comfortable with either outcome. If we won authorization, he’d be in a strong position to act in Syria. If we didn’t, then we would potentially end the cycle of American wars of regime change in the Middle East.
As Syrians were being slaughtered, Obama was channeling his inner Mitch McConnell, prioritizing hurting Republicans.
Every president gets one line in history textbooks. In the polite societies of North America and Europe, Barack Obama will be remembered as the first black president of the United States, the charismatic leader who inspired a countless many. In Syria, he will be remembered for fiddling while the country burned.