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The casualties of Obama’s Syria policy

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have died as the Obama administration's lead-footed inaction contributed to the country's deteriorating situation

Nearly 500,000 have died and 11.4 million have been displaced as a result of the Syrian civil war, one of the bloodiest and most brutal conflicts in modern history. That’s over half the country. Syria held 21.5 million inhabitants in 2010, according to population statistics from the World Bank. Now, over 50 percent of those 21.5 million have seen their homes and livelihoods destroyed, and many, too, have seen their friends and family killed.

Many of those killed and displaced in Syria’s civil war - the majority, in fact, according to data compiled by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) - were victims of punitive, indiscriminate regime airstrikes on civilian populations. Since 2011, the Assad regime has been the primary actor in the commission of what the World Policy Institute classified early on as a genocide

The list of casualties attributed to actions by the Syrian regime of president Bashar al-Assad are innumerable, and attempts to quantify the atrocities have led to a 20,000-page compilation of data including barrel bomb attacks, kidnappings, rape, torture, and civilian executions.

The crimes which stand out most are detailed in the Caesar Files, which documented nearly 11,000 instances of dead detainees, kidnapped and imprisoned by regime mukhabarat (secret police), displaying physical signs of torture and brutalisation.

In the public eye, the brutal nature of Syria’s casualties can be seen in the Ghouta attack of 21 August 2013, when a Syrian Arab Army brigade launched Volcano rockets loaded with sarin - an internationally prohibited nerve agent - into civilian areas in an eastern suburb of Damascus, leading to at least 4,000 casualties and the death of at least 426 children.

And many, including US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Powers and HRW Director Kenneth Roth, have attributed much of this so-called genocide to the inaction of the Obama administration.

Stagnant policy

This is a controversial opinion, to be sure, but it is one supported by assessments by swaths of Syria watchers and policymakers - from the independent analysts documenting the ongoing conflict, to the academic establishment of major foreign policy think tanks, to those within Obama’s administration itself.

Yes, a significant number of those within the US government hold the belief that the Obama administration’s lead-footed inaction in taking steps to prevent genocide have contributed to Syria’s deteriorating security situation, and the continued perpetration of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The president sparked outrage when he reneged on his 2012 red line, which amid worrying reports of chemical weapons use in Syria set the continued use of the weapons against civilians as a threshold which would prompt action from the US.

After the 2013 Ghouta attack, the Obama administration pursued a path of cooperation with the Assad regime and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which monitors compliance with international law regarding chemical weapons. The regime agreed to destroy its existing chemical weapons stockpiles, and remove the capability by which it could produce new chemical warheads.

But as I wrote for Bellingcat in early 2015, chemical weapon use in Syria continued, and in July of 2016, OPCW chief Ahmet Uzumcu pressured the Assad regime to explain why it had four undeclared chemical warfare agents still present in its stockpile.

Half measures

The categorical tragedy of Syria cannot be directly attributed to US inaction, nor would a simple demand for direct military intervention necessarily be enough to stop the deterioration of security and the commission of large-scale killings - as US intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan has shown.

Instead, much of the tragedy in Syria can be directly attributed to half-measures of US policy, a further result of Obama’s unwavering refusal to directly commit support to the besieged nation.

The CIA pursued a provision program of TOW anti-tank missiles to a lengthy list of vetted, often Free Syrian Army-associated rebel groups in Syria, but with the condition that rebels couldn’t use those missiles in Damascus lest they lose their US backing.

The CIA and Department of Defense provided operational and logistical support for rebel groups by establishing joint operations rooms for rebel factions - but neutered those groups’ effectiveness on the battlefield by imposing strict limits on what action they could take, and where they could launch offensives.

And the looming spectre above the rebel opposition to the Assad regime? The United States’ refusal to provide air support for groups fighting against regime coalition forces. The Syrian Arab Air Force and the Russian Air Force are the only direct parties in Syria with air power, providing an outsized advantage against the exclusively ground-based rebel opposition and leading to heavy reliance on suicide bombers and VBIEDs - the poor man’s F-16.

“The problem is that the United States' Syria policy was handicapped from the start,” Faysal Itani, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, told me.

“The premise of every approach taken in Syria was that the United States would not involve itself in the conflict on any meaningful level. All other US positions were shaped around a decision which was already taken, in spite of, not because of, the war's specific attributes.”

Internal disorder

The widespread sentiment among those with knowledge of Syria indicates that failure to take committed, effectual action in the country has created an environment by which crimes against humanity may be perpetrated with impunity.

And nowhere more visible are the casualties of the Obama administration’s noncommittal, ineffectual policy in Syria than within the Obama administration itself.

Former US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford was the first high-profile casualty of the Obama administration’s Syria policy. Ford is a career diplomat and a lifelong Arabist who entered the US Foreign Service in 1985, overseeing several critical aspects of US policy in the Middle East, including as Deputy Chief of Mission to Bahrain from 2001 to 2004 and Political Counselor to the US Embassy in Baghdad from 2004 to 2008.

In 2010, Ford was confirmed as US Ambassador to Syria by unanimous consensus from the US Senate. He served in this position during the Arab Spring, amid the outbreak of protests and revolution in Syria. Ford took initiative in being vocally supportive of the Syrian uprising, and in July of 2011, he visited the city of Hama, where anti-regime demonstrators draped his vehicle with flowers and olive branches in a sign of solidarity with his role in speaking out against the Assad regime’s brutal crackdowns, which led to the death of thousands of protesters.

This open support of the Syrian revolution drew ire from the regime, which broadcast false reports on state-run television blaming him for the formation of anti-government death squads. Soon after, the US government pulled Ford out of the country, with then-State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland blaming the regime for incitement which threatened his safety.

“We are concerned about a campaign of regime-led incitement targeted personally at Ambassador Ford by the state-run media of the government of Syria and we are concerned about the security situation that that has created,” said Nuland.

After the outbreak of armed conflict in Syria, Ford became instrumental in negotiating talks between opposition groups and the largely external political opposition to participate in the Geneva process, which sought to end the bloody conflict and remove Assad from power. But talks broke down, and in 2014, Ford announced his retirement - a protest at the stagnation of US policy in Syria.

Ford’s outspoken role in supporting democratic rebellion against the Syrian state drew ire from regime supporters, and drew protest from similar Arab regimes who feared they could be next in line for a popular uprising. The Egyptian government of Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, which had just seized power in a brutal military coup, blockaded Ford’s appointment as US Ambassador to Egypt on the basis that Ford “helped foment disorder in Syria by supporting insurgents”.

Ford, who has largely avoided the public eye since stepping down from his post at the State Department, gave a rare interview to PBS Newshour several months after his retirement. In speaking to PBS foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner, Ford said he could “no longer defend” the Obama administration’s policy in Syria.

“The efforts we’ve made to date have not worked,” said Ford. “We have not put enough pressure on the regime on the ground, and that’s why the peace talks we tried to do in Geneva [have failed]. The regime completely refused to discuss a political settlement - the policy has not brought them to the point where they feel like they have to negotiate. They’re not under enough pressure.”

When asked why Ford retired from his position at the State Department even after exiting the country in 2012 amid fears over the safety of his embassy staff, Ford cited stagnation of US policy on the ground.

“In the end, I worked from Washington on the Syria issue for two years. Events on the ground were moving, and our policy was not evolving very quickly. We were constantly behind the curve. [...] Finally I got to the point where I could no longer defend it publicly. As a professional career member of the US diplomatic service, when I can no longer defend the policy in public, it is time for me to go.”

Ford now serves as a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, and tweets exclusively from a small, inconspicuous personal account largely shielded from the public eye. But in June of 2016, he sat down with the New Yorker to comment on the latest casualties of Obama’s policy in Syria: the 51 State Department dissenters who leaked their outspoken protest to the media, and in doing so, committed career suicide.

“Frustration at the State Department has come to a boil. People don’t write in the Dissent Channel every day. The cessation of hostilities in Syria has broken down completely. The bombings of hospitals in Aleppo and Idlib are a violation of every human norm—and that’s not including the barrel bombs and the chemical weapons. The effort to get a political deal is going nowhere. The Assad government has refused to make any serious concessions. It won’t let in food aid, in violation of U.N. resolutions. And the Americans are watching it all happen. So the Dissent Channel message is a reflection of frustration by the people who are responsible for conducting policy on the ground. I felt that way when I left.”

Dissenters

In June of 2016, the New York Times received a draft document of an official State Department Dissent Memo, which utilized 2 FAM 072 - a State Department policy channel set up during the Vietnam War for dissenting diplomats to express their disagreement with US policy. Despite the Dissent Channel’s origins as protest to US military action in Vietnam, the 51 unnamed dissenters used the channel for a different route: to protest against military inaction.

“We are the State Department officers who have been involved in the US government’s response to the Syria crisis in varying capacities over the past five years,” the memo read. “Despite the Secretary’s efforts to deescalate the violence and forge ahead with the political track, we believe that achieving our objectives will continue to elude us if we do not include the use of military force as an option to enforce the Cessation of Hostilities (CoH) and compel the Syrian regime to abide by its terms as well as to negotiate a political solution in good faith. Assad’s systematic violations against the Syrian people are the root cause of the instability which continues to grip Syria and the broader region.”

The memo is measured, and notes that the 51 State Department officials do not see a large-scale US invasion of Syria as an appropriate option to bring an end to the conflict. Instead, the officials argue for judicious use of “stand-off and air weapons, which would undergird and drive a more focused and hardnosed US-led diplomatic process, leveraging the International Syrian Support Group to end the daily mass killing of civilians and egregious violations of human rights…”

Despite the dissenters’ actions in leaking the memo to the New York Times, ostensibly to avoid dismissal of their concerns by the Obama administration, the US has taken no further action to step up its pressure on the Assad regime. But the memo has left a lasting impact on public discussion of Syria, and a permanent scar on Obama’s foreign policy legacy.

In responding to the leaked memo, US Secretary of State John Kerry hinted, however subtly, at his true views towards the administration’s Syria policy.

“It's an important statement and I respect the process, very, very much.”

Resignation

Frederic Hof lasted only six months before he was struck by the categorical tragedy of Syria. He was appointed by President Obama as a Special Adviser for transition in Syria in March of 2012, and stepped down from his post in September that same year. He had worked tirelessly to bridge a detente between Syria and its neighbours since 2009, but in 2011, his role transitioned to halting Assad’s brutality at home.

“When I resigned my State Department post as adviser on Syrian political transition to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, I knew that Syria was plunging into an uncharted abyss—a humanitarian abomination of the first order,” wrote Hof in a 2015 editorial for Politico Magazine. “And I knew that the White House had little appetite for protecting civilians (beyond writing checks for refugee relief) and little interest in even devising a strategy to implement President Barack Obama’s stated desire that Syrian President Bashar Assad step aside.”

Like Robert Ford, Hof has been a lifelong Arabist. He was first exposed to Syria as a teenage foreign exchange student, and graduated from the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in 1969 before joining the US Army as a Middle East Foreign Area Officer. His list of military accomplishments include a Purple Heart, a Superior Service Medal, and an outspoken role in drafting the Long Commission report, which investigated Hezbollah’s bloody 1983 bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut.

Throughout his career, Hof was vocally forthright about what he viewed as “Iran’s penetration of the Arab world”. But in 2012, as Hof undertook a larger position in the settlement of Syria’s chaos and amid an ever-expanding Iranian role to keep Assad in power and further perpetuate its geopolitical aims, his hopes for a stable Middle East eroded. “When Kerry launched his latest Syrian peace initiative last October in the wake of Russia’s military intervention,” he wrote in March, “I warned that the objective might be process without end: a bridge of empty talk over Syria’s troubled water to January 20, 2017, one enabling the administration to leave office without having protected a single Syrian in Syria from Assad’s murder machine.”

Hof now serves as director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, and writes frequently on the Syria situation; a noble attempt to cauterise Syria’s wounds with the stroke of a pen.

As the Atlantic Council’s Faysal Itani told me, for the Middle East, for Europe, and for the world, there appears to be no end in sight.

“As it turned out, Syria became a bloody disgrace to the international community. We'll never know what would have happened had the US engaged with the opposition, pressured Assad, or done anything else. But the fact is this was never given any consideration in the first place. A position was taken, evidence was either ignored or spun, and external expertise was actively ridiculed.”

- Jett Goldsmith is a journalist from Denver, Colorado. He currently serves as news editor for Neowin, contributing writer for Bellingcat, and formerly is a member of the investigative reporting and geopolitical analysis outlet Conflict News. He is currently an undergraduate student in International Affairs and Middle Eastern Studies. You can follow him on Twitter@JettGoldsmith

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: US President Barack Obama walks to speak on Syria in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington on 31 August 2013 (AFP)