Can Trump Refrain from Repeating His Predecessor's Mistakes in Syria?

Flight operations on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy

The crisis in Syria isn't a Republican or Democrat problem; it is a moral failing that places America on the wrong side of history.

When it comes to the Middle East, newly elected American presidents have a tendency to veer toward overcorrection. George W. Bush came into office in early 2001 and wanted nothing to do with the region as Bill Clinton’s seven-year peace process exploded into unbridled terrorism a few months earlier. Eight years later, Barack Obama was elected with an “outstretched hand” policy. He promised to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, lessen America’s footprint in the Middle East and correct what he saw as the unfortunate plague of foreign-military adventurism.

The Middle East, however, is never shy about presenting its own lessons, regardless of presidential intentions. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama’s policies were shaped by seismic events beyond their control. For Bush, it was the 9/11 terrorist attacks; for Obama, it was the 2011 Middle East uprisings that engulfed the region, initially referred to by the more sanguine title of the “Arab Spring.” No template existed for dealing with those challenges and both presidents appeared to possess opposite instincts when formulating responses.

As the crisis in Syria enters its seventh year, the results of the naysayer arguments that won the political debate have been tallied: The deplorable lack of Western leadership in Syria created a predictable vacuum first filled by Hezbollah and Iran, and finally Russia, all of whom keep Assad’s regime on life support. It also allowed for the reconstitution of Al Qaeda in Iraq under the name of the Islamic State (ISIS). They established their caliphate capital in the northern Syria city of Raqqa and committed acts of barbarism so appalling it would make Caligula blush. Added to the toxic Syrian stew are various Sunni and Shia militias, some Islamists and others less so, most of whom are backed by other regional powers fighting to influence the country’s future.

Three years after Frederic Hof stepped down from his State Department post as adviser to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Syrian political transition, he reflected on the lessons he learned from the standpoint of 2015:

My failure to predict the extent of Syria’s fall was, in large measure, a failure to understand the home team. In August 2011, Barack Obama said Assad should step aside. Believing the president’s words guaranteed decisive follow-up, I told a congressional committee in December 2011 that the regime was a dead man walking. When the president issued his red-line warning, I fearlessly predicted (as a newly private citizen) that crossing the line would bring the Assad regime a debilitating body blow. I still do not understand how such a gap between word and deed could have been permitted. It is an error that transcends Syria.

The Self-Inflicted Wound and Putin’s Trojan Horse

For a president who eschewed force for finesse with his own form of overcorrection, it turned out that Barack Obama was clearly overmatched and subsequently outplayed by both Russia and Iran. Charles Krauthammer spotted the trend early: “Obama imagined that his silver tongue and exquisite sensitivity to Islam would persuade the mullahs to give up their weapons program. Amazingly, they resisted his charms, choosing instead to become a nuclear power.” As Hof also understood, the White House saw the problem as essentially one of communications, where Iran and Syria didn’t yet comprehend that they were on the wrong side of history.

He recalled how Vladimir Putin got the better of Obama in Syria: “For nearly two years, Washington had chased Moscow diplomatically in the belief that the Kremlin’s soothing words about supporting political transition in Syria were truthful. That which was obvious to many—Russia’s desire to perpetuate al-Assad in office—is now jarringly clear to the administration.”

This was before it was fully understood that for Obama, when it came to the Middle East, the only game in town was Iran and the nuclear deal he hoped to achieve. And Iran made clear that Syria was its nonnegotiable core interest that the West must respect. Obama publicly acceded to the demand by the end of 2015, agreeing to “respect” Tehran’s regional “equities.” As such, Barack Obama’s Syria policy was merely an afterthought, subordinated to the Iran file.