New York Post
August 30, 2016
State Department spokesman John Kirby sang the praises of President Obama’s Syria policy on Monday. And boy, was he tone deaf.
Kirby tweeted out proudly: “Today we reached [Obama’s] goal of welcoming 10k of the most vulnerable refugees fleeing the Syria Conflict . . .” He also lauded this purported milestone in a statement that appears on the State Department Web site.
Never mind that this accounts for less than 1 percent of all 4.8 million externally displaced Syrian refugees since the conflict began. The real issue here is that the White House Syria policy has been an unmitigated dumpster fire.
The death toll in Syria has exceeded 400,000 and it’s still climbing. Internally displaced Syrians total 6.6 million.
The Obama administration could’ve stopped the bloodshed early on. In late 2012, the president declared that the use of chemical weapons by Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s regime would constitute a “red line” prompting American action. Yet when Assad’s army carried out a chemical-weapons attack the following year, he prevaricated and ultimately demurred.
To be clear, he didn’t need to lead the country to war. He could’ve imposed a no-fly zone or created safe havens. He did neither.
Sickeningly, Obama later said of this decision, “I’m very proud of this moment.”
In a recent interview, Wall Street Journal reporter Jay Solomon offered an explanation for the president’s 180. He noted that both Iranian and US officials warned Obama that if he took action against the Assad regime, it could scuttle his ongoing nuclear diplomacy with Iran, Assad’s patron.
The president’s decision to stand down opened the door for the regime’s continued slaughter of the Syrian people, which included the use of additional chemical weapons, the introduction of crude “barrel bombs,” mass starvation, ethnic cleansing and other unspeakable acts of brutality.
The decision also served as a green light for Iran to upgrade its involvement in Syria. Thousands of Iranian troops, advisers and fighters from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force (a designated terrorist organization) are now fighting in Syria. This also includes hundreds of fighters from Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias, not to mention thousands of fighters from the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah.
Meanwhile, the administration’s Iran policy has effectively underwritten the Syria conflict. The return of an estimated $100 billion in escrowed oil funds, along with the highly controversial provision of $400 million in cash and an additional $1.3 billion in interest (both tied to previously frozen funds), has made it easier for Iran to continue to fund the Syrian regime. And this doesn’t even include the billions of dollars Iran has reaped through other US and European sanctions relief.
Not surprisingly, the slaughter of Sunni Syrians and the emergence of an empowered Iran inspired a surge of jihadist groups into Syria. There was an early moment when the Obama administration could have backed moderate fighters, and many of the president’s advisers exhorted him to do so. But he made a deliberate decision to not threaten Iran’s “equities” in Syria.
With little to no support from the West, the relative moderates were soon eclipsed by extremists. With the rise of the Islamic State, even al Qaeda suddenly seemed less genocidal by comparison. The Islamic State has since gravitated well beyond Syria, having conquered territory in Iraq, Libya and Egypt, and launching a spate of terrorist attacks in Western cities from Brussels to Orlando.
The Syrian war now includes Russia fighting alongside the Assad regime and Iran. In fact, Moscow just gave Iran advanced S-300 missile defenses and Russian jets recently flew sorties from Iran to bomb Assad’s enemies. The Obama administration has bristled at Russia’s intervention, but done little more.
Turkey also bristled at Moscow’s intervention and even shot down a Russian jet fighter last November. But now, this NATO ally has made peace with Putin, and has since made the plunge into Syria. Except the Turks aren’t fighting the Islamic State. They’re fighting the Kurds. In other words, we’ve entered yet another bloody phase of this war.
The sheer complexities of the conflict will inevitably prompt some to say the president was wise to limit US involvement. But it was the president’s decisions that invited this mess.
With cities flattened and casualties mounting, Syria can only be described as a nightmare. When this administration takes a victory lap for a meaningless benchmark, it deliberately distracts from the atrocities that continue to occur on its watch.
Jonathan Schanzer is vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Clifford D. May
President, Foundation for Defense of Democracies