The devastation of Syria will be Obama’s legacy

Natalie Nougayrède writes: The ceasefire in Syria may not have been formally pronounced dead, but hopes to resurrect it are fast dwindling. After an aid convoy was destroyed near Aleppo, fighting again intensified and the US and Russia exchanged accusations in the UN. But in reality US diplomacy had collapsed before these latest events.

Last week, just hours after western coalition airstrikes mistakenly targeted Syrian government forces, killing more than 60 people, the US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, made an extraordinary statement that served to highlight the contradictions at the heart of the Obama administration.

Power lambasted Russia’s “uniquely cynical and hypocritical stunt” for having convened an emergency UN security council meeting over the bombing of Syrian troops. She lashed out at how Russia had, over the past five years, consistently propped up the Assad regime and protected it from any consequences of its murderous policies. At length, she described Bashar al-Assad’s strategy of “death by a thousand paper cuts”: starvation sieges; the “horrifying, predictable regularity” of strikes on civilian targets; the “routine” use of chemical weapons; and “torture chambers” holding “tens of thousands of people”. Why, she asked, had Russia never once called an urgent security council meeting over such horrors?

There have long been two takes on Syria. One is the geopolitical realism line, which Barack Obama has chosen to follow largely because it fits with his reluctance to get involved in another war. The line is that US or western security interests are not at stake in an intractable, far-flung civil war that can more easily be contained than solved. The other is the moral imperative line that Power has repeatedly advocated within the administration. It refers to the doctrine of “responsibility to protect”, according to which a state’s sovereignty can be violated when a regime slaughters its own citizens. [Continue reading…]

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2 thoughts on “The devastation of Syria will be Obama’s legacy

  1. hquain

    “One is the geopolitical realism line, which Barack Obama has chosen to follow largely because it fits with his reluctance to get involved in another war….”

    Do we know enough about the inner workings to draw such a conclusion? Is it really a matter of Obama’s personal taste? I wonder what the Pentagon chiefs are saying, for example, about the actual military options. Notice too how the rhetorical force shifts with one adjectival addition: “reluctance to get involved in another futile war.”

  2. Paul Woodward

    We’ve had close to eight years to draw some fairly strong conclusions about Obama’s personal preferences based on his words and actions. He came into office with the mission of extricating the U.S. from quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan. He clearly never had the intention of freeing up U.S. military forces in those arenas so that they would be available to enter another one. No doubt this lack of appetite for further entanglements has been shared by the Pentagon. But this drive to disengage seems to have also involved significant cognitive disengagement. Remember in his first one-on-one meeting with his top commander in Afghanistan, Obama “didn’t seem very engaged.” Likewise with Iraq, Obama’s overriding interest has been to try and leave it behind.

    In 2014, Peter Beinart detailed the many ways in which Obama’s approach to Iraq was defined by his desire for disengagement:

    A few months before the 2010 elections, according to Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker, “American diplomats in Iraq sent a rare dissenting cable to Washington, complaining that the U.S., with its combination of support and indifference, was encouraging Maliki’s authoritarian tendencies.”

    When Iraqis went to the polls in March 2010, they gave a narrow plurality to the Iraqiya List, an alliance of parties that enjoyed significant Sunni support but was led by Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite. Under pressure from Maliki, however, an Iraqi judge allowed the prime minister’s Dawa Party—which had finished a close second—to form a government instead. According to Emma Sky, chief political adviser to General Raymond Odierno, who commanded U.S. forces in Iraq, American officials knew this violated Iraq’s constitution. But they never publicly challenged Maliki’s power grab, which was backed by Iran, perhaps because they believed his claim that Iraq’s Shiites would never accept a Sunni-aligned government. “The message” that America’s acquiescence “sent to Iraq’s people and politicians alike,” wrote the Brookings Institution’s Kenneth Pollack, “was that the United States under the new Obama administration was no longer going to enforce the rules of the democratic road…. [This] undermined the reform of Iraqi politics and resurrected the specter of the failed state and the civil war.” According to Filkins, one American diplomat in Iraq resigned in disgust.

    By that fall, to its credit, the U.S. had helped craft an agreement in which Maliki remained prime minister but Iraqiya controlled key ministries. Yet as Ned Parker, the Reuters bureau chief in Baghdad, later detailed, “Washington quickly disengaged from actually ensuring that the provisions of the deal were implemented.” In his book, The Dispensable Nation, Vali Nasr, who worked at the State Department at the time, notes that the “fragile power-sharing arrangement … required close American management. But the Obama administration had no time or energy for that. Instead it anxiously eyed the exits, with its one thought to get out. It stopped protecting the political process just when talk of American withdrawal turned the heat back up under the long-simmering power struggle that pitted the Shias, Sunnis, and Kurds against one another.”

    With Syria it seems abundantly clear that Obama’s overriding concern has been that their war not become our war and this is what has opened up a space within which the Assad regime, Russia, and Iran have learned their military operations can be carried out with few if any international constraints. The more loudly atrocities have been condemned by U.S. officials, the more meaningless those condemnations have become.

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