When the so-called “Arab Spring” erupted in Syria March 11, 2011, anti-regime rebels backed by Saudi Arabia started the civil war that’s currently cost 134,000 lives. Admitting that Syria is “crumbling” in a joint White House press conference with French President Francois Hollande, 52-year-old President Barack Obama acknowledged there was little the U.S. could do to affect a positive outcome. Obama rejected calls by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to establish a no-fly zone to allow U.S.-friendly rebels to succeed in toppling Syrian President Bahar al-Assad. Blamed for countless deaths and brutality, the Cairo-based Arab League, Western powers, including the U.S., no longer accept al-Assad as Syria’s legitimate leader. Russian President Vladimir Putin and China’s Premier Xi Jinping back al-Assad’s government.
Under pressure from conservatives on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Obama reluctantly announced June 13, 2013 he’d back military aid to Free Syrian Army’s Brig. Gen. Salim Idris. His decision antagonized Putin, busily trying to arrange a Syrian peace conference. It didn’t take long for Putin to grant asylum to 30-year-old U.S. National Security Agency leaker-and-fugitive Edward Snowden Aug. 1. Had Obama not antagonized Russia on Syria, it’s possible Putin would have handed Snowden over to the CIA. After spending time with Idris in 2013, McCain felt confident that the U.S. was backing the right party against al-Assad. While the White House wanted to back Idris, they couldn’t guarantee that military aid wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands. With the Afghan war ending at year’s end, Obama couldn’t see involving the U.S. in another Mideast war.
No one disputes that the humanitarian crisis in Syria in terms of casualties and refugees eaching a critical mass. “Nobody is going to deny that there’s enormous frustration here,” said Obama, admitting that there’s little the U.S. could do change the outcome. White House officials take exception to McCain’s approach of enforcing a dangerous no-fly zone. “We are continuing to explore every possible avenue to solve this problem, because it’s . . . heartbreaking to see what’s happen to the Syrian people,” said Obama, offering no constructive options. Apart from backing Russia’s attempt dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, the White House finds itself with a feckless policy, deferring to the Russians to manage the problem. National Intelligence Director James Clapper expressed concern about reports of Syrian war crimes, including torture and mass executions.
Whatever Clapper’s concerns in Syria, the fact remains that multiple terror groups vie to topple al-Assad’s government. Putin has made it clear that he sees more terrorism and anarchy in Syria without al-Assad. “When you consider the humanitarian disaster in addition to the two-and-half-million refugees, the six-and-a-half or seven million that are internally displaced, the 134,000-plus who’ve been killed, it an apocalyptic disaster,” Clapper told the House Foreign Relations Committee Feb. 11. White House and State Dept. officials acknowledge Clapper’s assessment but given the current civil war, they don’t believe U.S. military aid or intervention would help. Faced with growing criticism at home and abroad, the State Department went on the defensive. “I would really take issue with the notion that we’re doing nothing,” said State Dept. spokeswoman Marie Harf, disagreeing with critics.
Backing Russia’s attempt to dispose of Syrian chemical weapons doesn’t stop al-Assad’s offensive, causing collateral damage in Syria’s civilian population centers. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney insisted the White House was doing everything possible to relieve the Syrian people’s suffering. “This is an extremely difficult problem . . the path forward here is complicated and will be long but that the only resolution here is through a negotiated political settlement,” said Carney, knowing full-well that al-Assad won’t compromise with Syrian rebels. All the work of 80-year-old U.N. Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi hasn’t produced a breakthrough. Syrian rebels, including Gen. Idris, won’t settle for al-Assad remaining in power. Al-Assad shows no intent of sharing or ceding power with Saudi-backed terror groups seeking to topple his minority Shiite government.
Sitting on the fence hasn’t helped U.S. policy in Syria, handing aid to Saudi-backed terror groups. “Our government is doing what we have sadly done too often in the past,” said McCain, insisting the White House could do more. While McCain would like to see a no-fly zone, there’s no stomach for U.S. military intervention in another Mideast civil war. If the U.N. Security Council decided to back a no-fly zone, the White House would have no choice but to join in. “We are telling ourselves that we have no good option, as if there are ever good option when it comes to foreign policy in the real world,” said McCain, asking Obama to act unilaterally. Instead of alienating Putin, Obama should join Putin to sponsor a peace conference where all options are put back on the table. Whether there’s a civil war or not, multilateral action could help resolve the humanitarian disaster.
About the Author
John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.