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Obama takes hits from all sides on Syria policy

Trying to analyze President Obama’s foreign policy and how he manages it, one thing pops out as a glaring issue. His actions are often untimely. Where President George W. Bush was a “preemptive sort of president,” Obama is “reactive”. Being reactive might be responsive if his actions were timely, and they are often not.

Weighing drones over Syria
Tony Avelar/Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images

When rebels first appeared to be protesting the Bashar al-Assad government, what were intelligence professionals telling the President? Did they see it coming? Did they inform the President that Assad’s hold on Syria was loosening because the Sunni majority had it with the abusive Shiite minority in power?

What appears to be a pattern is that the President tries to respond with measured actions one tactical instance at a time. Doing this, it seems that America is lost or trapped by events and not guided by comprehensive Middle East foreign policy and strategy that can come only when there is a policy to guide it.

Michael Rubin reported in Middle East Forum:

“While the Obama administration and congressional leaders may justify renewed engagement with Syria with their desire to jumpstart the Middle East peace process, they ignore the very issue that lies at the heart of the Syrian threat to U.S. national security: Syrian support for radical Islamist terror. This may seem both illogical and counterfactual given past antagonism between the 'Alawite-led regime and the Muslim Brotherhood, but there is overwhelming evidence that President Bashir al-Asad has changed Syrian strategic calculations and that underpinning terror is crucial to the foreign policy of the country.”

Obama’s policy is revealed in soundbites and fits and starts.

"Not talking [to adversaries] doesn't make us look tough—it makes us look arrogant," he declared during his campaign.[6] In his inaugural address, he declared, "To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."

According to the Rubin article, Bashar al-Assad responded, "hope that dialogue would prevail to overcome the difficulties that have hindered real progress toward peace, stability, and prosperity in the Middle East."

Allegedly, the Obama administration “eased up” on Syria resulting from positive feelings.

Here are some facts:

“On June 24, 2009, the State Department announced that it would once again nominate an ambassador for the U.S. embassy in Damascus.[11] Just over a month later, the Obama administration announced that it would ease sanctions on Syria. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly explained that "Senator [George] Mitchell [the president's Middle East envoy] told President Assad that the U.S. would process all eligible applications for export licenses as quickly as possible."[12]”

America eased up. The article argues with evidence that the Syrian government employed terrorism to strengthen its position, and later we learned that it was using chemical weapons.

The article is a bit complicated because it describes Assad’s government as being one of contradiction and duplicity. It sometimes supported al Qaeda, while on other occasions appearing to combat terrorists who are also a nuisance to his government.

“Syria is now behaving like Saudi Arabia did in the 1990s and early 2000s when it chose to export Islamist radicalism while denying its own culpability and its vulnerability to attacks from the same quarter. Asad should heed history, however. Just as an Al-Qaeda blowback struck Saudi Arabia in the end, so, too, could Damascus's coddling and support for jihad abroad come back to haunt Syria.”

The consequence of the absence of adequate foreign policy and strategy resulted in what Hillary Clinton best describes.

“Clinton said that she did believe that “the failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad—there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle—the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.”

“Obama Insiders Frustrated Over Reluctance to Attack Syria and Iraq

President Barack Obama recently dismissed his critics who argue that arming the Syrian moderate opposition long ago would have made a difference in the fight against Bashar al-Assad. But louder than ever those critics – some from within his own administration – are saying, “We told you so.”

(Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a regular contributor to Defense One. Lemmon is also a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.)

That notion, the president said, “has always been a fantasy. This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.”

As the Islamic State grows and gains territory in not only Syria but Iraq as well, some within the administration say they feel “extreme frustration” that their long-standing warnings have come true—warnings about the likely gain of extremist groups on the ground in the face of American inaction in Syria. They also reject the hardening narrative that the rise of the Islamic State was inevitable.

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