Syria haunts Obama and it could haunt his legacy, too

After more than five years of war and 450,000 deaths, Obama says he’s constantly haunted by what’s happened there.

This Sept. 1, 2016 file photo provided by the Syria Press Center (SPC), an anti-government media group, shows rescue workers using a bulldozer to remove a burned van after airstrikes that killed a dozen people west of the town of Suran in Hama province, Syria. CREDIT: Syria Press Center via AP, File
This Sept. 1, 2016 file photo provided by the Syria Press Center (SPC), an anti-government media group, shows rescue workers using a bulldozer to remove a burned van after airstrikes that killed a dozen people west of the town of Suran in Hama province, Syria. CREDIT: Syria Press Center via AP, File

After more than five years of war and 450,000 deaths, the Syrian civil war will surely add an asterisk to President Obama’s legacy. Obama has said the mass destruction and loss of life “haunts me constantly,” but he has also told reporters he is skeptical that any other decision would have changed the status-quo in Syria today.

Obama’s skepticism, however, is not enough for many Syrians who feel the United States has let down the Syrian people in the face of starvation sieges, chemical weapon (mostly chlorine) attacks, and repeated airstrikes on civilian targets perpetrated overwhelmingly by the Assad regime and their allies. While sections of the opposition have been accused of committing war crimes, the Assad regime and co. kill at a far more lethal level than ISIS or any other group for that matter.

Obama has acknowledged Assad’s role in terrorizing Syria and called for him to step down as early as 2011, but since then, Syrians argue that his policy of focusing on groups like ISIS has only bolstered the regime. It might be a stretch to say Obama supports keeping Assad in power, but it’s hard to argue that his administration’s policies haven’t been doing exactly that.

Tacit support

“The U.S. said Assad must go, but in reality they haven’t done anything toward that,” said Yazan Badran, a PhD Fellow of the FWO at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel from Latakia, a city on Syria’s western coast. “What is done is to align with some allies in the [Perisan] Gulf and keep the Syrian conflict boiling at a level that cannot be resolved one way or another — keeping the country in crisis without allowing a solution.”


The White House policymakers have largely miscalculated how far the Assad regime and its allies, Russia and Iran, would go to keep the governing status quo. Advisers believed Assad would never use chemical weapons, that Russia wouldn’t intervene, that ISIS wouldn’t become a major player in the Syrian civil war, and that the Iranian nuclear agreement wouldn’t affect the situation there.

One of the most notable miscalculations was on chemical weapons. In August 2012, Obama said Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people would force the United States’ hand.

“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,” Obama said. “That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”

But even after reports emerged that Assad had, in fact, used chemical weapons against Syrian citizens, the administration decided to use a different tactic. Since then the Obama administration has been distancing itself from the idea that the ‘red line’ was delineated by Obama specifically.

“Some have tried to suggest that the debate we’re having today is about President Obama’s red line,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in 2013. “I could not more forcefully state that is just plain and simply wrong. This debate is about the world’s red line. It’s about humanity’s red line. And it’s a red line that anyone with a conscience ought to draw.”


The United States and Russia agreed on a deal to depose of Assad’s stock of chemical weapons. But years have passed and reports indicate Assad is not only still in possession of chemical weapons, but his regime is still using them. Some of these chemical weapons have also fallen into the hands of ISIS, and the militant group has used mustard gas in attacks in Syria.

Similar miscalculations have been made on the large role ISIS would come to play in the conflict, as well as outside players like Russia and Iran.

Meanwhile, the United States continues to try and negotiate with Russia. A few ceasefires have been reached, but each one has broken down after the United States accused the Russians of violating terms. The most recent ceasefire alsobroke down because of a U.S. attack on Syrian troops that the United States claimed was an accident.

Negotiations without military action

While negotiations drag on, Russia and the Syrian air force have bombed the besieged city of Aleppo for months, killing thousands of civilians. Russia and Syria say they are killing terrorists — they don’t differentiate between ISIS and the rest of the opposition. Analysts following Syria tend to agree that Russia is unlikely to negotiate in good faith unless the United States plans some sort of military action.

CREDIT: Al-Jazeera
CREDIT: Al-Jazeera

“Negotiations have never progressed except when new military ‘facts on the ground’ have been established,” Ayman Mhanna, Secretary General of the Democratic Renewal Movement, a secular, social liberal Lebanese political party, told ThinkProgress. “What Assad and the Russians have been doing is to create new political realities based on their military action. The Western powers have never used the carrot and stick approach. Only the carrot. And this is why they failed to achieve anything.”


Obama asked his foreign policy advisers to consider military action in Syria last month, though the prospect seems far-fetched after a meeting of 11 anti-Assad governments in mid-October revealed little public support.

Secretary Kerry and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power are among a select few Obama confidantes who support the use of force in Syria, but their efforts have been largely fruitless.

“I think you’re looking at three people, four people in the administration who have all argued for use of force, and I lost the argument,” Kerry told a group of Syrian civilians in a closed-doors meeting in September, arguing that his hands were tied.

“Negotiations have never progressed except when new military ‘facts on the ground’ have been established.”

Power started her career as a journalist covering the wars that fractured the former Yugoslavia, and her experience there strongly shaped her worldview. After returning from the war she wrote a book called A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide that would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-fiction.

“Power is a partisan of the doctrine known as ‘responsibility to protect,’ which holds that sovereignty should not be considered inviolate when a country is slaughtering its own citizens,” the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg wrote in his April 2016 cover story ‘The Obama Doctrine.’

Power’s efforts to force Obama’s hand in Syria though have conflicted with the president’s own philosophy of keeping American soldiers out of issues that do not directly impact U.S. national security. “Samantha, enough, I’ve already read your book,” Obama once said, according to Goldberg.

Obama’s reign is nearly over, and it looks as though his administration will leave the White House without accomplishing anything in Syria. Instead, prominent voices from Syria believe that his actions have propagated the Syrian government’s rule.

“In many important ways, the Americans have been supporting Bashar al-Assad,” prominent Syrian leftist and intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh told the Intercept in a recent interview. “The United States helped create a situation in which Syria would be plunged into chaos, but the regime would remain in power.”

Saleh, an atheist who spent 16 years in prison for belonging to the Communist party, said that Western interference prevented the oppressed Syrian people from rising up and overtaking Assad, their oppressor.

“…these countries vetoed Assad’s being toppled by the Syrian people by force,” he said. “Meanwhile, as we can see, they have no problem watching the Syrian revolution be crushed by force. The United States also negotiated the sordid chemical weapons deal with Russia in 2013 — a deal that solved a big problem for America, Russia, Israel, and for the Assad regime, but did nothing for the Syrian people. The United States also led the ‘Friends of the Syrian People’ group, which it then sidelined and destroyed.”

The failure of the left

While Obama is probably the largest Western culprit in the eyes of the Syrian people, the United States isn’t the only country that the Syrian people feel they have been let down by. Across the pond, the United Kingdom’s own left-wing party, led by Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, has taken numerous stances leaving Syrians nothing short of baffled.

One of those stances was an attempt to equate Russian and American crimes in Syria. While the U.S. should not be spared criticism for their killing of civilians in Syria, it cannot be compared to the Russian strategy of targeting hospitals in rebel-held areas like east Aleppo.

“Supporters of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK look at Syria as a marginal issue,” Badran told ThinkProgress. “I don’t think they think of Syria much. A lot of the narratives contain Orientalism and Islamophobia about Syrians and about the Islamic factions in the uprising without taking into account how they developed.”

“People forget that three years ago there wasn’t an Islamic state in Syria and they forget what actions had to happen for ISIS or Ahrar ash-Sham or Nusra [a group that renamed itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham after allegedly splitting from Al Qaeda] to develop in Syria,” Badran said. “They forget how much oil money had to come from the Gulf and how much the Free Syrian Army had to be decimated to turn into these.”

“There is a complete abandonment of what the left is supposed to be historically and philosophically,” Joey Ayoub, MENA editor at Global Voices and founder of the Hummus for Thought blog, told ThinkProgress, citing examples of internationalism and supporting those “who are actually killed, tortured, and oppressed” against their oppressor.

Much of the lack of support for the Syrian people struggling under oppression comes from a focus on the Islamification of sections of the Syrian opposition to Assad. While the opposition has seen certain Islamist factions rise to prominence, it is now painted by some as completely dominated with jihadist ideology — an argument also put forward by Assad and Russia.

“Because armed groups have Islamic names, people say ‘look they are jihadis’,” Ayoub said. He cited the example of Daraya, an area where Assad has been accused of ethnic cleansing. “In fact, [the groups in Daraya] were not [jihadists], they were under a democratically elected council and they use terminology that appeals to their own culture.”

Arguments abound that the ‘war on terror’ language popularized by George W. Bush’s administration has made its way full circle.

“The rhetoric in Europe of the hard left is almost analogous of the hard right,” Badran told ThinkProgress. “And the Syrian regime has completely adopted that terminology since the uprising began. Russia’s reconfigured it for their own too. It’s the same terminology and the same narrative.”

Badran said the use of such terminology is intentional. “It reduces an uprising with many conflicting positions,” he said. “It is not one whole homogeneous people. There are a lot of conflicting ideologies and people, just like in Syrian society, [that] have not had the platform to air themselves for 40 years and are instead reduced to a certain ideology that strikes a chord with western audiences.”

“The narrative of the war on terror that the Bush era accelerated after 9/11 — that narrative won,” Ayoub said.

Options moving forward

Obama’s departure may bring a change in policy toward Syria — and there are a lot of ideas floating around right now.

One of those is imposing a no-fly zone. Democrat presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her running mate Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) have advocated for a designated No-Fly Zone in Syria to protect civilians and prevent adding to the exodus of more than five million Syrian refugees. Meanwhile, Republican candidate Donald Trump has advocated against a NFZ in Syria, despite contradictions from his own running mate Gov. Mike Pence (R-IN).

A no-fly zone has long been called for by various actors on the ground. The Nobel Peace Prize nominated civil defense in Syria, more commonly referred to as the ‘White Helmets’, have been one of the biggest advocates for a NFZ for at least a year and a half. The White Helmets are the first responders at the scene of airstrikes perpetrated by Russian and Syrian planes and they feel a NFZ would alleviate them from digging through rubble to try and save the wounded and those near death.

Critics of this policy though have gone as far as to call it insane. Many believe it could instigate a conflict between the United States and Russia. Some say it could even start World War III.

“I wouldn’t put it past [Russia] to shoot down an American aircraft,” James Clapper, the U.S. director of national intelligence, said at an event last month at the Council on Foreign Relations.

There is little doubt that stepping up some sort of military backed action could raise tension with the Russians. But experts who follow the Syrian crisis closely don’t believe a no-fly zone would result in an out and out war.

“It could lead to a situation close to the Cuban Missile crisis but I believe it will lead to some kind of progress in the political settlement,” Mhanna told ThinkProgress.

Other experts, however, believe that some sort of no-fly zone or safe zone should be included in a comprehensive plan that puts protecting civilians at the forefront.

“Adopting a more assertive approach to Syria would undoubtedly bring with it risks, but if managed carefully and aimed in justifiable directions, the benefits could potentially be manifold,” Charles Lister, a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute and Author of The Syrian Jihad, wrote in War on the Rocks in late September. “Perhaps more importantly, the risks that result from continuing to push the existing policy approach may eventually outweigh those posed by a more assertive approach.”

Lister has followed the minutiae of the Syrian civil war from the start. He’s also a skeptic of the argument that military action would begin the disastrous tumble toward WWIII.

In his piece for War on the Rocks, Lister outlined a comprehensive strategy to deescalate the war in Syria. He agreed with the ceasefire negotiations undertaken by Russia and the U.S. but feels such negotiations have proven hollow so far, mainly due to a lack of military enforcement.

Civilian protection must be the centerpiece of any holistic strategy that aims both to create conditions that are more amenable to meaningful political negotiations between Syria’s warring parties and to undermine the dynamics that feed extremism. That the international community has consistently focused on introducing a cessation of hostilities is the right approach, but such attempts lacked any enforcement mechanisms or clear consequences for violation. Given the track record of the Assad regime and the highly problematic behavior of its two state backers in Russia and Iran, the feasibility of such trust-based initiatives is questionable. Precedent shows that such arrangements do not work and, in all likelihood, will continue not to.

The war in Syria may already haunt Obama. And in an age where every massacre is documented and recorded thanks to the internet, it is likely the war will haunt his legacy too. And unless his successor takes definitive action to save Syrian lives and help the oppressed shake the chains of their oppressor, experts foresee more death and destruction perpetrated by the Assad regime and their allies.

“The United States must accept that it is now necessary to buttress a policy that seeks civilian protection with discernible consequences for violators,” Lister wrote. “It can no longer be morally, ethically, or diplomatically acceptable for the international community to stand by and watch such brazen acts of indiscriminate brutality being conducted by a government against its own people.”


Ayman Mhanna’s title was changed after this story was published.