Obama’s Collapsing Syria Policy

Syria has long been on the neocons’ “regime change” list, so they eagerly supported a violent insurgency to topple the Assad regime even as it veered into extremism. Now, that policy is collapsing but President Obama won’t admit the failure, write Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett.

By Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in front of a poster of his father, Hafez al-Assad.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in front of a poster of his father, Hafez al-Assad.

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 dataparticipation 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?

Supporting an armed challenge to Assad was also bound to invigorate Al Qaeda and dramatically escalate sectarian violence. Well before March 2011, it was evident that, among Syria’s Sunni Islamist constituencies, the Muslim Brotherhood — whose Syrian branch was historically more radical and violent than most Brotherhood elements — was being displaced by more extreme, Al Qaeda-like groups.

External support for anti-Assad forces after March 2011 both accelerated this trend and reinforced it with an infusion of foreign jihadis at least partially financed by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab American allies. The U.S. Intelligence Community estimates that 26,000 “extremists” are now fighting in Syria, more than 7,000 from outside the country.

U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warns that many of these militants want not just to bring down Assad; they are preparing to attack Western interests — including the American homeland — directly. It is hard to imagine a more dysfunctional outcome for U.S. interests.

Likewise, picking the losing side in Syria’s externally-fueled civil war has further eroded American standing and influence in the Middle East and globally. Most notably, Washington’s Syria policy has contributed substantially to the ongoing polarization of Western relations with Russia and China.

In particular, the Obama administration’s declared determination to oust Assad has prompted much closer Sino-Russian cooperation to thwart what both Moscow and Beijing see as an ongoing campaign to usurp the Middle East’s balance of power by overthrowing regional governments unwilling to subordinate their foreign policies to Washington’s preferences.

This collaboration, in turn, has helped to bring Russia and China into broader geopolitical alignment, deliberately working to turn a post–Cold War world defined by overwhelming U.S. hegemony into a more genuinely multipolar order — the opposite of what U.S. policy should be trying to achieve.

The Syrian conflict will end in one of two ways. In one scenario, the Assad government continues to extend and consolidate its military gains against opposition forces. Over time, opposition elements make their peace with the government, in piecemeal fashion. However, because of ongoing external support, enough opposition groups are able to keep fighting that significant portions of Syria’s population will continue to face serious humanitarian and security challenges for several more years.

In the alternative scenario, the main external supporters of the opposition (the United States, Britain and France, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states, Turkey) and of the Assad government (Russia, China, Iran) pursue serious diplomacy aimed at helping the government and those opposition elements with some measure of genuine support in Syria reach a political settlement based on power sharing.

The current trajectory of U.S. policy makes the first scenario — with the unnecessary deaths of more Syrians, further revitalization of Al Qaeda, and continued erosion of America’s strategic position—virtually inevitable. The second scenario happens to be favored by Russia, China, Iran and even the Assad government; it is also, far and away, the morally and strategically preferable scenario as far as America’s real, long-term interests are concerned.

But shifting from the first scenario to the second will require fundamental changes in America’s Syria policy. Above all, U.S. officials need to recognize — and to act as if they recognize — that serious diplomacy means engagement with all relevant parties (even those Washington does not like), with such engagement informed by an accurate understanding of on-the-ground reality (rather than wishful thinking).

For Syria, this means acknowledging that resolving the conflict there will require the United States to come to terms with a Syrian government still headed by President Bashar al-Assad.

Flynt Leverett served as a Middle East expert on George W. Bush’s National Security Council staff until the Iraq War and worked previously at the State Department and at the Central Intelligence Agency. Hillary Mann Leverett was the NSC expert on Iran and – from 2001 to 2003 – was one of only a few U.S. diplomats authorized to negotiate with the Iranians over Afghanistan, al-Qaeda and Iraq. They are authors of  Going to Tehran. [This article previously appeared at The National Interest,  click here, or go to http://goingtotehran.com/obama-at-west-point-doubling-down-on-a-failed-syria-policy]

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7 comments on “Obama’s Collapsing Syria Policy

  1. Superb article! For 40 years, Syria maintained peace with Israel and protected Christians and other religious minorities. Syria is merely a pawn in a neo-con strategy of attacking Libya to capture its huge arsenal for transshipment to Syrian rebels, then toppling President Assad to create a base for attacking Iran.
    Now, we must decide whether President Assad or al Qaeda will rule Syria. And it was al Qaeda that murdered 3000 Americans on 9-11. Assad has never threatened America in any fashion. However, al Qaeda is determined to conquer the world.

  2. Rehmat on said:

    The vast majority of Syrian voters no longer believe in the western myth of the “Arab Spring.” As they see it, their homeland was attacked by 250,000 foreign mercenaries sponsored by NATO and the GCC. Bashar al-Assad has saved the country from foreign aggression. They explain that they fled their country, not because of the bombing by the Syrian Arab army, but because of they suffered from the crimes at the hands of jihadists backed by NATO and the GCC.

    http://rehmat1.com/2014/05/31/heavy-turnout-for-syrian-presidential-election/

  3. I take exception to the statement of the authors that Russia,china,Iran and Assad are interested in a political settlement. If that was the case Assad would have agreed to step down and agreed to a political transition and free and fair elections. The elections that are taking place currently in Syria are a sham with the winner already predetermined. Although it is convenient to blame the jihadists, the authors are forgetting the role of Hezbollah. It is as maybe not as bad as the al Qaeda inspired jihadists however it is the only terrorist outfit with a country (Lebanon) and it is currently helping Assad crush the revolts. So yeah the truth that the authors print in this story needs to be revisited in lights of the above facts.

    • incontinent reader on said:

      Why should Assad step down, and what right do you or anyone else have to substitute your judgment, based as it is on flawed facts, for that of the Syrian people?
      It’s their country and their destiny.
      As for Hezbollah, learn a bit more about it before you get on the Likud group think train.

    • D505 on said:

      The authors argue plausibly for the Syrian people’s position in a “lesser of two evils” sense, but need to put more emphasis on “the false narrative” as to why the US policy. Here again a pretext has been created to cover the deeper purposes in de-stabilizing the region.

  4. Penelope Powell on said:

    I think this article is called a “limited hangout”. The weapons sent to Syria by US and allies go directly to ISIL and al Nusra, who are supported by US intelligence. A moderate opposition in Syria is a fiction to justify the ramping up of support for the opposition.
    I submit that the US is in Syria to produce the same chaos it made in Iraq, Afgh, and Libya. A country in chaos cannot team up w others to oppose the neoliberal econ system that funnels money into the pockets of the .001%. Nor can such a country resist the setting up of a US puppet who will approve the pipeline that the US wants rather than the Iranian one which will strengthen a Syrian ally. Nor can it be used to politically/militarily support any rival to the monopoly of power which the criminals who control the US so desire.

    Surely no one is any longer so naive as to believe that the rulers of a country which used white phosphorus and “depleted” uranium in Fallujah, Iraq is interested in democracy.