It is fashionable to criticise Washington's approach to the Syrian civil war. In his memoir, former US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta described President Obama's approach to Syria and Iraq as flawed. Obama has been roundly criticised for his 'tentative' approach to Syria. A piece on this site last week referred to the bankruptcy of US policy in the region. Even Australian pundits such as Greg Sheridan have said that 'for the last few years nothing has been all that Obama has offered.'
Now the Russians' apparent decisiveness in deploying a modest strike force to its decades-old ally Syria has led people to claim Obama has been outmanoeuvred by Putin. But this same argument was leveled against Obama more than two years ago. It also ignores the fact that the Syria problem has always been more straightforward for Moscow than for Washington. For Russia there is simply the Assad regime and those opposed to the Assad regime. Moscow's only real question has been the degree and timing of its support to Assad.
Critiques of Obama's Syria policy ignore two inconvenient facts. Firstly, the critics have offered no credible alternative policy. Indeed, Obama was recently moved to highlight the intellectual vacuity of many of his critics when he stated:
I hear people offering up half-baked ideas as if they are solutions or trying to downplay the challenges involved in the situation. What I'd like to see people ask is, specifically, precisely, what exactly would you do and how would you fund it and how would you sustain it? And typically, what you get is a bunch of mumbo jumbo.
Panetta offered the fact that Washington should have armed 'moderate' rebels, without going into any detail regarding what he meant by 'moderate' or how the use of these weapons would be accounted for once they crossed the border. Outgoing Speaker of the House John Boehner has even spoken of the need for US 'boots on the ground' without ever going into specifics.
For those who have cared to listen, the US Commander-in-Chief has highlighted the intractability of the situation in Syria before, along with the dearth of good options. [fold]
In a long interview with President Obama published in 2014, David Remnick from The New Yorker asked him whether he was haunted by the situation in Syria, and his reply says all that one needs to know about how he sees Washington's role:
I am not haunted by my decision not to engage in another Middle Eastern war. It is very difficult to imagine a scenario in which our involvement in Syria would have led to a better outcome, short of us being willing to undertake an effort in size and scope similar to what we did in Iraq. And when I hear people suggesting that somehow if we had just financed and armed the opposition earlier, that somehow Assad would be gone by now and we'd have a peaceful transition, it's magical thinking.
Added to that is the plethora of state and non-state actors with their fingers in the Syrian pie, and over whom Washington has little if any influence. And as for those who see arming the various opposition forces as some sort of panacea to Syria's troubles, Obama had this to say:
Very early in this process, I actually asked the C.I.A. to analyze examples of America financing and supplying arms to an insurgency in a country that actually worked out well. And they couldn't come up with much. We have looked at this from every angle. And the truth is that the challenge there has been, and continues to be, that you have an authoritarian, brutal government who is willing to do anything to hang on to power, and you have an opposition that is disorganized, ill-equipped, ill-trained, and is self-divided. All of that is on top of some of the sectarian divisions...And, in that environment, our best chance of seeing a decent outcome at this point is to work the state actors who have invested so much in keeping Assad in power—mainly the Iranians and the Russians—as well as working with those who have been financing the opposition to make sure that they're not creating the kind of extremist force that we saw emerge out of Afghanistan when we were financing the mujahideen.
This is not to say Obama has gotten everything right. Indeed, it's probably accurate to say that his strategy is correct but some of the tactical execution has been poor. The major error was his use of the term 'red line' in setting the trigger for (limited) US air strikes in response to the use of chemical weapons. Although the Russians came up with a diplomatic outcome that was a net gain for regional security, Washington's lack of follow-through on the threat eroded its credibility in the region. Israel has shown the effectiveness of limited air strikes in sending a message to Damascus without becoming decisively committed.
Another tactical error has been to dally in the rebel-arming business, even though Obama himself pointed out the futility of it. There is evidence that the US-supplied weapons and some training to rebel groups in Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and there has been an ill-fated push by the US to create a secular anti-ISIS militia. Obama's misstep could be explained by his need to assuage the concerns of regional states and to dissuade them from creating their own proxies (to a greater extent than they already did). Unfortunately, Obama's concerns have been borne out by the results, as 'moderate' groups supplied by Washington have allegedly been overrun by Islamists and have had their weapons taken. The idea of creating a secular anti-ISIS rebel group has also proved to be a chimera; their small numbers barely survived first contact in Syria.
Obama has been under enormous pressure to do something in Syria, however he rightly believes that it would take an enormous commitment of blood and treasure to even begin to restore order in that blighted country. Even then, there would be no guarantee that it could resolve the underlying causes of the civil war.
When you don't control all the levers you shouldn't expect to control the outcome. So, while Washington has made some tactical errors, Obama's strategy of avoiding a decisive commitment is the right one. While it may appear a modest strategy for a superpower, none of his critics have been able to come up with anything that resembles a coherent alternative. That says much of what you need to know about Syria.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user The White House.