A Middle East Tragedy: Obama's Syria-Policy Disaster

"How many more Syrians need to die before Washington rethinks its policy?"     

For over three years, the United States has sought to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by supporting an Al Qaeda-infused opposition that Washington either knew or should have known would fail. Yet, in his commencement address at West Point on Wednesday, President Obama promised the American people and the rest of the world more of the same.         

Obama’s vague pledge to “ramp up” support for selected oppositionists is a craven sop to those claiming that U.S. backing for the opposition so far—nonlethal aid, training opposition fighters, coordination with other countries openly providing lethal aid, and high-level political backing (including three years of public demands from Obama that Assad “must go”)—has been inadequate, and that Assad could be removed if only America would do more. This claim should be decisively rejected as a basis for policy making, rather than disingenuously humored, for it is dangerously detached from reality.

From the start of the conflict, it has been clear that the constituencies supporting Assad and his government—including not just Christians and non-Sunni Muslims but also non-Islamist Sunnis—add up to well over half of Syrian society. These constituencies believe (for compelling historical reasons) that the alternative to Assad’s regime will not be anything approximating a secular, liberal democracy; it will be some version of Sunni Islamist rule. As a result, since the start of the conflict in March 2011, polling data, participation in the February 2012 referendum on a new constitution, participation in May 2012 parliamentary elections, and other evidence have consistently shown a majority of Syrians continuing to back Assad.

Conversely, there is no polling or other evidence suggesting that anywhere close to a majority of Syrians wants Assad replaced by some part of the opposition. Indeed, the opposition’s popularity appears to be declining as oppositionists become ever more deeply divided and ever more dominated inside Syria by Al Qaeda-like jihadis. Just last year, NATO estimated that popular support for the opposition may have shrunk to as low as 10 percent of the Syrian public.

These readily observable realities notwithstanding, the Obama administration, most of America’s political class, and the mainstream media all jumped on, and have stayed with, a fantastical narrative about cadres of Syrian democrats ready, if just given the tools, to take down a brutal dictator lacking any vestige of legitimacy. The administration, for its part, embraced this narrative largely because it desperately wanted to undermine Iran’s regional position by destabilizing Assad and his government. In 2012, Obama compounded his fatally flawed choice by setting his infamous “redline” regarding chemical-weapons use in Syria—ignoring the potentially catastrophic risk that this would incentivize rebels to launch “false flag” chemical attacks, precisely to elicit U.S. strikes against the Syrian military.

The consequences of crafting policy on the basis of such a surreal distortion of political reality in Syria and of strategic reality across the Middle East have, not surprisingly, been dismal.

Given that the popular base for opposition to Assad is too small to sustain a campaign that might actually bring down his government, it was utterly predictable that external support for armed oppositionists could only translate into death and existential distress for Syrians. Over 150,000 have been killed so far in fighting between opposition and government forces, with millions more displaced. How many more Syrians need to die before Washington rethinks its policy?

Pages