To be fair to President Obama, no one knows what to do about Syria.
This does not obviate the fact that President Obama is responsible for managing the crisis. As of now, he has let the situation deteriorate, without benefit of American involvement.
Surely, no one wants to put American soldiers in the middle of a civil war between competing groups of Islamic terrorists. Yet, the situation does not appear to be amenable to diplomacy.
Some have suggested no-fly zones and arming the rebels, but that assumes that we know who the rebels are and that we have reason to believe that they are on our side.
Perhaps, at one point in the conflict they were, but today it seems no longer to be the case.
The Obama administration seems to have believed that Bashar Assad would go the way of Hosni Mubarak. When the war broke out it saw rebels fighting for a righteous cause and predicted that the tyrant Assad would be quickly dispatched with the aid of a few words from the White House.
It worked in Egypt. Why shouldn’t it have worked in Syria?
In other words, the Obama administration thought that their favorite historical narrative, the one where the people rose up and overthrew tyrants, was repeating itself in Syria.
It was a naïve, a child’s-eye view of foreign policy. We learn from it that history does not repeat itself and that those who manage today’s crisis as though it were yesterday’s will be defeated.
Since no one knows what to do, we are left with counterfactuals. What would have happened if the administration had done this or that, there and then.
Many agree with the counterfactual that Bret Stephens offered:
Had he armed Syria's rebels early in the conflict, he could have empowered a moderate opposition, toppled the regime, sidelined Sunni jihadists, prevented the bloodbath we now have, stemmed the refugee crisis and dealt a sharp strategic setback to Iran—all without any U.S. military involvement.
Had he moved against Assad after the latter's use of chemical weapons, the president could have demonstrated the seriousness of U.S. red lines—this time with limited and surgical use of U.S. military assets. (By the way, whatever happened to that U.N. fact-finding mission on Syrian chemical weapons that Mr. Obama promised back in April?)
If Obama had done so, the situation would probably be different today. But, as happens with counterfactuals, we do not know whether it would have been better or worse.
It’s nice to think that the original rebels were freedom fighters, but who can say whether they would have evolved into terrorists or whether they would have been overrun by terrorists.
David Goldman doesn’t think that there is very much we can do, at all. To his mind Syria is not viable as a country. It’s inevitable that it disintegrates:
Ultimately, partition of Syria (and other Middle Eastern countries) on the model of the former Yugoslavia probably will be the outcome of the crisis. There are lots of things to keep diplomats busy for the next generation. But the terrible fact remains that it is not in our power to prevent the decline of a civilization embracing over a billion people, and to prevent some aspects of that decline from turning ugly beyond description. Among the many things we might do, there is one thing we must do: limit the damage to ourselves and our allies.
Goldman believes that the war in Syria is yet another chapter in the story of the disintegration of the Islamic world. He is anything but hopeful.
Other, equally sage commentators have suggested that Syria’s civil war serves America’s interests. Sunni extremists and Shiite extremists are killing each other day after day. What’s not to like?
Of course, they are also creating a humanitarian disaster in Syria, murdering tens of thousands of innocent civilians and producing massive flows of refugees into Jordan and Turkey.
Others, like Daniel Pipes believe that the Syrian civil war is not such a bad thing at all.
Today, Charles Krauthammer examined the changing shape of the battlefield in Syria. It had looked as though Assad’s forces were headed for defeat. Today, it looks as though the tide has turned against the rebels, largely because Hezbollah forces from Lebanon have intervened. Also, the Assad government is being helped by Russian President Valdimir Putin.
In the vacuum created by President Obama’s failure to manage the crisis, other players have stepped up their game. Sensing American paralysis they have used the conflict to promote their own geopolitical interests, or better, to promote their claims to world leadership.
On the global political chessboard, America seems to have come up the loser in Syria.
In Krauthammer’s words:
And the United States, whose bystander president, having declared that Assad must go, that he has lost all legitimacy and that his fall is just a matter of time, is looking not just feckless but clueless.
President Obama doesn’t want U.S. boots on the ground. Fine. No one does. But between nothing and invasion lie many intermediate measures: arming the rebels, helping Turkey maintain a safe zone in northern Syria, grounding Assad’s murderous air force by attacking airfields — all the way up to enforcing a no-fly zone by destroying the regime’s air-defense system.
Obama could have chosen any rung on the ladder. He chose none. Weeks ago, as battle fortunes began changing, the administration leaked that it was contemplating possibly, well maybe, arming the rebels. Then nothing.
Obama imagines that if America is completely hands-off, a civil war like Syria’s will carry on as is, self-contained. He simply does not understand that if America withdraws from the scene, it creates a vacuum that invites hostile outside intervention. A superpower’s role in a regional conflict is deterrence.
If I read Krauthammer correctly, he is saying that sometimes, when there are no good options, one is still obliged to do something.
Life would be much easier if we are always faced with choices between good and bad options. Or else, between good and better options.
Problems arise when we find ourselves in a dilemma where we are faced with a series of bad choices. In that case, one that we all confront on a daily basis, we often find that we still have to choose one, lest we be eliminated from the game.