Obama Chooses Intensified but Strategically Useless Violence over Serious Diplomacy in Syria

by | Jun 20, 2013


Last week, Hillary Mann Leverett told Al Jazeera’s Inside Story, see here, that the Obama administration’s recent decision to begin providing direct military aid to Syrian rebels is “a signal to the rest of the world, particularly to…those who are looking to deal with Syria politically, in a negotiated way, that the United States is not serious about that.  The United States is much more serious about ensuring a continued quagmire in Syria, to keep both the Assad government and the rebels essentially fighting each other so that they’re not looking at the United States or Israel in the region”—and, of course, to weaken Iran. 

The Obama administration’s lack of seriousness about a political resolution to the Syrian conflict was plain for the world to see at the G8 summit that concluded yesterday in Northern Ireland.  To be sure, attendees agreed on a vaguely-worded seven-point plan to address the conflict, including creation of a “transitional governing body” for Syria.  They also called for convening a Syria peace conference “as soon as possible.”    

The plan noted, though, that a transitional governing body would be “formed by mutual consent”—a sign that ongoing disagreements over the place of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his government in a political process to resolve the conflict had blocked consensus on how a “transitional governing body” should be put together.   And those disagreements are driven by the insistence of the Obama administration, along with its British and French collaborators, on using a political process to effect regime change in Damascus.  As Flynt explained on Al Jazeera last month,

“Hillary and I have been saying for more than two years now, from the get go, that U.S. support for the Syrian opposition was about two things.  One was to use the opposition to bring down the Assad government, to (in their calculation) damage Iran’s regional position.  Secondly, it was about coopting the Arab Awakening:  to show that after the loss of pro-Western regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, a near-miss in Bahrain, that it wasn’t just authoritarian regimes that subordinated their foreign policies to the United States that were at risk from the Arab Awakening—that you could also bring down a regime that had a clear commitment to foreign policy independence…

“Iran, Russia, and other players that have, in popular parlance, been supporting the Assad government have been clear, from very early in this conflict, that they see a political settlement as the only way out of this.  What they have said all along, though, is that they will not let the United States dictate not just pre-conditions for a political settlement, but in effect ‘pre-results,’ by requiring at the beginning that Assad go.”     

In an interview with Charlie Rose before the G8 summit, President Obama stuck to this foolish posture, talking about the imperative of a “political transition” in Syria, not about a genuine political settlement. 

And so, at the summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin once again had to make clear that Moscow would not support terms of reference for a Syrian peace conference requiring that Assad leave office.  Likewise, Putin had to reiterate that, from Russia’s perspective, all parties participating in a conference—including the Syrian government—should be free to choose their own delegations.  In Kuwait, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov amplified Moscow’s position:  “We are categorically against…assertions that the conference should be some kind of public act of capitulation by the government delegation followed by a handing over of power to the opposition.”     

After Secretary of State John Kerry’s discussions with Lavrov in Moscow last month, the Obama administration had professed interest in convening a Syria peace conference in June.  This was postponed to July, precisely because of the Obama administration’s arrogant insistence on getting everything it wants, up front—and in a manner maximally damaging to the interests of not just the Syrian government, but also of Russia, China, and Iran—before a political process can start.  Now, The Guardian reports, “Sources said it was now unlikely that a peace conference would take place in July, since the Russian president could not agree with the other G8 leaders on the terms of a post-Assad cabinet.” 

As diplomatic prospects fade, attention focuses on the Obama administration’s decision to “ramp up” (Obama’s phrase with Charlie Rose) U.S. support for oppositionists.  Publicly, the administration justified this with a purported assessment by U.S. intelligence agencies that Syrian government forces have used chemical weapons against rebel fighters.  But, as Hillary noted on CCTV’s BizAsia America last week, see here, 

“The White House has given us nothing to scrutinize here.  Remember the use of manufactured evidence of Iraq’s WMD—chemical weapons, the same thing we’re talking about here—to justify an invasion of Iraq in 2003.  After the fact, of course, nothing was found, noting was there.  After that experience, it would behoove all of us to be very careful and to scrutinize whatever we’re allowed to see.  But the White House, so far, hasn’t let us see any of the so-called evidence.”   

As Hillary laid out on both Al Jazeera and CCTV, the real reason for deciding the “ramp up” U.S. military support to the rebels—as White House officials themselves acknowledge—is not the purported use of chemical weapons.  Rather, it’s the decisive difference that Hizballah’s engagement is making on the battlefield, which has fueled concern in the White House and other parts of official Washington that Hizballah and Iran—and, by extension, Russia and China—can’t be allowed to “win” in Syria. 

So, at this point, the Obama administration’s objective in supporting the rebels is less about overthrowing Assad—for, as both Flynt and Hillary point out, this project has failed.  Moreover, as Hillary notes on Al Jazeera, “[T]he weapons that they’re talking about giving are not going to do anything decisive, strategically, on the ground.”  So what is the objective?  Hillary explains:      

“The long-term plan—you’ve been hearing it increasingly from neoconservative voices, from pro-Israel voices here in Washington—is to keep a quagmire in Syria.  Do not allow Assad to win, under any circumstance, because an Assad victory is an Iranian victory, a Chinese victory, a Russian victory—and a real defeat for the United States.  So I think this is about keeping the parties fighting each other in Syria, so they’re not challenging U.S. dominance in the region…

The aim here, again, is not to overthrow Assad.  We [the United States] gave up on that.  For two years we’ve been trying it.  We have given up on that—and particularly with the insertion of Hizballah, there’s been a strategic turn with the taking of Qusayr.  I think at this point it’s almost ‘game over,’ and we’re just trying to keep the people fighting so we don’t have to accept defeat.”

Of course, keeping people fighting in this way will, in Hillary’s words, “just lead to more and more dead Syrians, and essentially we’ll have to come back to the negotiating table, with the opposition even weaker, having even further collapsed.”  But, for the White House, those additional dead Syrians will have helped keep John McCain and Marco Rubio at bay, so that if parts of the opposition accept a deal with the Assad government before the end of Obama’s presidency, it will be harder for Republican critics to score points against him. 

For those thinking this an overly cynical interpretation, recall Obama’s “decision-making” on Afghanistan.  During his first year in office, Obama acceded to Pentagon requests for additional U.S. forces in Afghanistan—even though, by Obama’s own assessment, this would lead only to more dead Afghans and more dead American soldiers.  But, by sacrificing those Afghans and Americans, Obama hamstrung McCain and other GOP critics, to a point where, as Obama now reverses course and draws down U.S. forces in Afghanistan, his critics are reduced to nattering about the imprudence of pulling out on a publicly announced timetable.  Strategically and morally, this is a pathetic way for the United States to run its foreign policy—but it is Obama’s way, and his administration is now pursuing it in Syria.