How Obama–and the GOP–Missed on Syria

How Obama–and the GOP–Missed on Syria

Secretary of State John Kerry revealed today that the U.S. is training Syrian rebel forces in the fight to dislodge dictator Bashar al-Assad. It is the right intervention, but at the wrong time, and reveals much that is wrong with the Obama administration’s policy towards the rogue state, which it first tried to rehabilitate. By delaying action when the rebellion began, the U.S. strengthened Iran; by intervening now, the U.S. risks helping Al Qaeda.

The attempt to sanitize the Assad regime began two years before Obama took office, when Kerry and other Democrats (along with the occasional Republican) made a show of visiting Assad. Their aim was to present an alternative to the Bush administration’s policy of confronting nations that sponsored terror (as Syria did, and does) by showcasing a diplomatic approach. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel also supported such efforts.

When President Barack Obama took office in 2009, he re-opened the U.S. embassy in Damascus as a show of goodwill. At the same time, he cut off funds to democratic opposition groups in other Arab countries, and held back support for the demonstrators who nearly toppled the Iranian regime that year. The aim was to “reset” U.S. foreign policy and preserve the prospects for diplomacy by shoring up regimes acting contrary to U.S. interests.

Domestic political considerations also led the Obama administration to withdraw from Iraq without leaving a U.S. troop presence behind as promised, and to declare a timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan that blunted the effects of the U.S. surge there. Those developments led to a perception that the U.S. was growing weaker, even as the Arab Spring, triggered in part by long-term effects of Bush administration policies, began to erupt.

The Arab Spring is viewed today by many conservatives as having weakened the U.S. in the region, chiefly by undermining pro-American regimes. But the Obama administration made a conscious choice, as the Arab Spring unfolded, to shore up anti-American regimes while undermining those that were either pro-American or that had moved in a pro-American direction (with the exception, as ever, of Saudi Arabia–and its client state, Bahrain).

While Syria had been viewed as wavering between Iran and the West several years ago, by the time the Arab Spring hit, Assad was firmly in the Iranian camp. And so the Arab Spring might have toppled one of Iran’s only allies in the region. Yet the Iranian regime moved quickly to overcome the Sunni-Shia divide and establish links with the new post-Arab Spring governments, while providing military and diplomatic assistance to Assad.

The result is that Iran has turned the region’s democratic movements from a liability into a strength, even as it backs the brutal dictatorship in Damascus. The U.S. delayed intervening in Syria even though it helped topple Mubarak in Egypt and Gadhafi in Libya. The Syrian rebels, meanwhile, have received arms and support from other sources–including Al Qaeda, which is now thought to have as many as 10,000 combatants in Syria.

And so the strategic landscape has shifted as the Obama administration has dithered. An early intervention could have hurt Iran and saved tens of thousands of civilian lives. Now, U.S. intervention may still hurt Iran–but will also help Al Qaeda, which is also resurgent in post-Gadhafi Libya and across the Maghreb. Until the U.S. faces up to the real strategic challenge posed by Iran, we will be trapped by contradictions partly of our own making.

A few Republicans, notably Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), have pressed for U.S. intervention in Syria, and continue to do so; others have mocked the Obama administration’s (belated) embrace of Arab uprisings in Syria and elsewhere. But both sides in the GOP’s internal debate miss the point. The real cause of the U.S. dilemma is the Iranian regime, which the Bush administration failed to confront and the Obama administration has protected.

The debate about Iran has focused on its nuclear program. In fact, the regime itself is the problem. The good news is that it lacks legitimacy among Iranians. The bad news is that the U.S. lost a golden opportunity in June 2009 to side with the Iranian people. The Iranian regime sees the bigger picture (above) that Obama does not: namely, that the U.S. is in retreat. To solve Syria, America must first reverse that perception, and that reality.