When Barack Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, unleashed a tirade against Russia, Syria, and Iran on Tuesday, some observers wondered why the Obama Administration is only just now finding its voice on the horrors of Syria.
That is an unfair criticism. Obama himself has been calling the Syrian dictator a monster for years. He just doesn’t do anything about it. Having abdicated all responsibility for global leadership, deliberately weakened America abroad with his noxious “smart power” and “lead from behind” philosophy, and created a power vacuum like nothing seen since World War II, Obama has been effectively leaning against the Oval Office wall and wondering when someone else will come along to rescue the Syrian people from Assad.
It’s hard to remember now, given what a comprehensive disaster Obama foreign policy has been around the world, but it is actually the official U.S. position that Bashar Assad must be removed from power. We have trained, armed, and financed local armies for that very purpose. Assad’s apparent victory over the rebellion at Aleppo is a direct defeat of Barack Obama, who leaves office having been bested by a man he (accurately) described as a child-murdering tyrant.
Obama first called for Assad to step down in August 2011. Even then, he was criticized for waiting too long. His administration responded by blatantly lying to reporters about when sanctions were imposed against the Syrian regime for its murder of civilians. Obama’s team even lied about whether the sanctions targeted Assad’s regime directly (they didn’t). They babbled incoherently about “smart power” when they were called on the lies.
In a demonstration of her courageous leadership, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton actually denigrated the importance of calling on Assad to relinquish power. “It’s not going to be any news if the United States says Assad needs to go,” she snorted. “Okay. Fine. What’s next? If Turkey says it, if King Abdullah says it, if other people say it, there is no way the Assad regime can ignore it.”
Is it any wonder Assad found the United States easy to ignore, when Obama, Clinton, and the rest of their team had such a low opinion of its prestige? They certainly were not acting as if they confronted the avatar of inhuman evil denounced by Ambassador Power at the United Nations.
At any rate, on August 18, 2011, Obama finally did get around to expressly calling on Assad to resign from the Syrian presidency. “It is clear that President Assad believes that he can silence the voices of his people by resorting to the repressive tactics of the past. But he is wrong. As we have learned these last several months, sometimes the way things have been is not the way that they will be. It is time for the Syrian people to determine their own destiny, and we will continue to stand firmly on their side,” he said, in a declaration that has not aged well at all.
“We have consistently said that President Assad must lead a democratic transition or get out of the way. He has not led. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside,” Obama said.
This was really just a slightly stronger distillation of rhetoric Obama had been using for some time. In May 2011, for example, he praised the Syrian people for courageously “demanding a transition to democracy,” castigated Assad for choosing “the path of murder and mass arrests of its citizens,” and told the dictator he must either lead the transition to democracy or “get out of the way.”
Incidentally, Obama sniped at Iran for supporting Assad in that same May 2011 speech: “This speaks to the hypocrisy of the Iranian regime, which says it stand for the rights of protesters abroad, yet suppresses its people at home. Let us remember that the first peaceful protests were in the streets of Tehran.”
Yes, and how did that work out for everyone involved? Where was Barack Obama when those peaceful protesters cried out for help and the theocracy mercilessly crushed them? Tehran ended up smashing the international sanctions regime and taking delivery of pallets full of cash from Obama. They don’t seem to have been much troubled by his accusations of hypocrisy.
Of course, no one will ever forget Obama’s “red line” against Syrian chemical weapons, or the way he cravenly backed away when Assad called his bluff. Obama tried to make it seem ambiguous whether he had actually drawn a line Assad must not cross, but there was nothing ambiguous about the language employed by the President when the first intel reports that Damascus was preparing to unleash WMD came in.
“I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command: the world is watching. The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable. And if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable,” Obama thundered in December 2012, a few months after his infamous “red line” statement. Assad would go on to use chemical weapons on numerous occasions, including after the Russians supposedly took away his WMD stockpile.
In September 2015, from the podium of the United Nations General Assembly, Obama criticized Russia and Iran for supporting “tyrants like Bashar al-Assad who drops barrel bombs to massacre innocent children.”
“Assad reacted to peaceful protests by escalating repression and killing that in turn created the environment for the current strife,” Obama said, blaming the tyrant for enabling the rise of ISIS. “When a dictator slaughters tens of thousands of his own people, that is not one nation’s internal affairs – it affects us all.”
In November 2015, Obama restated his insistence that Assad had to step aside: “The reason is not simply because of my opinion of him. It is because it is unimaginable that you can stop the civil war here when the overwhelming majority of people in Syria consider him to be a brutal, murderous dictator. He cannot regain legitimacy.”
Obama then posed a question to Assad’s patrons in Moscow and Tehran: “Do they actually believe that they can prop up Assad and win on the ground militarily inside Syria against all the opposition, or do they actually think that it is better to save the Syrian state and work with the international community and the U.N. to find a government that truly can be legitimate?”
Even after the White House agreed to a U.N. Security Council peace plan that would have left Assad in power at the end of 2015, Obama was still insisting Assad had to go: “Our view has been that you cannot bring peace to Syria, you cannot get an end to the civil war, unless you have a government that is recognized as legitimate by a majority of that country. It will not happen.”
This was the worst of all possible worlds: the American president effectively whining about the persistence of a regime he had denounced as monstrous, even as he signed on to a peace plan that might have ended the brutal Syrian civil war by keeping Assad in power… but the plan didn’t actually come together. Obama sacrificed American prestige for no gain at all.
The deeper problem is that not only has Assad evidently survived the long and bloody insurgency, but the world-view of Russia, Iran, and Syria has prevailed over Obama’s ineffectual “smart power.”
Assad and his patrons insisted all along that he was the legitimate ruler of Syria, the insurgent forces were terrorists, and the West was needlessly prolonging the brutal conflict by supporting a doomed, extremist-haunted insurgency instead of joining forces with Damascus and Moscow to wipe out the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. As just one example, when an internal Obama administration memo blasting the President’s Syria policy as a disaster and calling for a stronger response leaked out in June 2016, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov growled, “Calls for the violent overthrow of authorities in another country are unlikely to be accepted by Moscow.”
History is written by the victors. The history of the Syrian civil war will say that Barack Obama called out Bashar Assad as a murderous tyrant – one who broke supposedly the highest law in the civilized world by using weapons of mass destruction against his own people – but Assad was secure in power on the day Obama left office.
“Smart power” turns out to have been a very ill-considered bet that Assad and his patrons weren’t really serious about doing whatever it took to keep him in Damascus. President-elect Trump has his work cut out for him reclaiming the geopolitical chips Barack Obama gambled away.